Encyclopedia of African American Artists

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J

William H. Johnson (1901–1970), Painter.

William H. Johnson knew adversity; he was born into it, and his entire life reflected various degrees of adversity. His triumph occurred because of his ability to confront adversity: to work through it, confront it, and, in spite of it, produce masterpieces that speak about the indomitability of the human spirit.

Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina, on March 18, 1901, to Alice Johnson, a black woman with native American ancestry, and a popular white father who cared little about young Johnson’s upbringing. Faced with an economic and social dilemma, Alice reconsidered her options. The result was her marriage to an African American man. The marriage was blessed with four children—two boys and two girls (Bearden and Henderson 1993, 185). Another account of Johnson’s family suggests that while miscegenation was rampant because women who worked as domestic hands—and Alice was one of them —were often subjected to unwanted sexual harassment by their white employers (Powell, Homecoming, 5). While Johnson was the only one of the five children with distinctive wavy hair and light skin, Powell suggests that his racial features could be attributed to the possibility that Johnson inherited part of his mother’s American-Indian ancestry. What mattered, ultimately, was that Johnson’s distinctive racial features exposed him to uncomplimentary whispers from neighbors and painful taunts from his schoolmates, all of which had an adverse effect on his social disposition (Powell, Homecoming, 5).

Adversity soon struck after Alice remarried. Johnson’s stepfather suffered an accident, and the resulting disability shifted the burden of raising the family on the shoulders of Alice, who took on a variety of household jobs in order to cater for the family. Thus, at an early age, Johnson was steeled by adversity, as he had to assume his own share of responsibility at an early age: taking care of his younger siblings and working on the farms during the seasons. These harsh conditions would explain Johnson’s limited education, for he eventually dropped out of school, although not before his teachers had noted his talent in art.

In 1918, Johnson headed for New York in company of his uncle. He endured the harshness of weather and work to earn sufficient money to send to his mother, and to enroll at the National Academy of Design in 1921. He proved to be a fast learner and came under the influence of Charles W. Hawthorne, who recognized the need to give Johnson the critical financial support without

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Encyclopedia of African American Artists
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xi
  • Acknowledgments xvii
  • A 1
  • B 17
  • C 35
  • D 55
  • E 77
  • F 95
  • G 99
  • H 105
  • J 117
  • K 125
  • L 133
  • M 151
  • N 169
  • O 173
  • P 181
  • R 201
  • S 211
  • T 231
  • U 239
  • V 243
  • W 247
  • Bibliography 271
  • Index 283
  • About the Author 295
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