William H. Johnson started drawing at a very early age and developed his skill by copying characters from cartoons in newspapers and magazines. This early technique gave him the resolve that he had the innate ability to pursue visual art as a vocation. He was one of a number of South Carolinians to excel as an artist in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Born in Florence, South Carolina on March 18, 1901, Johnson left South Carolina at the age of 17. He went to New York City where he took on jobs as a porter, cook, and stevedore in order to pay for his training at the New York Academy of Design. He also sent money to his family in Florence, South Carolina. While living in New York, 1918-1926, he received numerous awards for his painting and graphic art.
Johnson left New York and settled in Europe. From there he traveled throughout Europe, North Africa and Scandinavia for 10 years. In 1927 he visited the world famous African-American artist Henry O. Tanner at his country home, “Edgewood”, at Trepie Pas de Calais, Tanners work. “The Banjo Lesson,” is a favorite among young people worldwide. Johnson briefly returned to New York in 1930 and completed numerous paintings for the Harmon Foundation. The organization awarded him a gold medal for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes. During this United States visit, he also went to his home in Florence and painted scenes which reflected his hometown. One hundred and thirty-five of his works were exhibited at the local YWCA.
This outstanding artist returned to Europe and settled with his wife in the fishing village of Kerteminde, Denmark. They returned to New York in 1938 where Johnson became an artist with the Work Progress Administration’s (WPA) mural project. During the Depression of the 1930’s, the WPA generated work for artists so they could use their talents and receive compensation.
Throughout his life, Johnson received critical acclaim for his artistic ability. His major work, “Chain Gang,” was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. When William Johnson became ill in 1947, most of his works were placed under the jurisdiction of the Harmon Foundation. In 1973, it entrusted 1,100 of his paintings to the National Collection of Fine Arts. This national agency dispatched his works to museums through the United States.
Artist, par excellence, Johnson was a pioneer in capturing the images of African-American life and projecting them as stories worthy of being told via the medium of visual art. He died in 1970.