William H. Johnson
Like the individuals he called Fighters for Freedom, Johnson understood struggle. He was born in Florence, South Carolina, in 1901, but left the Jim Crow South while still a teenager to go to New York City. There he worked at low-skilled jobs, saved money, and built a portfolio that would earn him admission to the National Academy of Design in 1921. By the time he completed the course of study five years later, he had won almost all the prizes offered by the distinguished institution. Then, like many aspiring artists of his generation, he left for Europe. In Paris and the south of France, he painted landscapes and light-struck villages that marked him as an up-and-coming modernist.
After three years abroad, Johnson returned to New York in 1930, where his paintings were acclaimed by national art critics. But he stayed less than a year. After visiting his family in South Carolina and making a quick stop in Washington, DC (where he renewed his friendship with Howard University professor Alain Locke and met poet Langston Hughes), he returned to Europe. In Denmark he married Holcha Krake, a weaver and ceramist he had met in Europe. For the next eight years, the couple lived in a small fishing village in Denmark and among the mountains and fjords of Norway, showing their work and traveling the continent.
The white world of Scandinavia offered Johnson a life relatively free of racial discrimination he had experienced as a Black man in the United States. But sales of his art were rare and, in late 1938, with World War II imminent, the couple returned to New York. Johnson abandoned the dazzling landscapes of his Scandinavian years to focus on the lives of African Americans in New York and the rural south. He painted sharecroppers, city hipsters, Black soldiers training for war, scenes inspired by Negro spirituals, and, his last series, Fighters for Freedom. In the late 1940s, devastated by his wife’s death from breast cancer and suffering from a degenerative brain illness, Johnson’s mental health began to deteriorate. In 1947, he was confined to Central Islip State Hospital in New York, where he remained without painting until his death in 1970.