The Evolving Styles of William H. Johnson: Paintings in the Luce Foundation Center

The Evolving Styles of William H. Johnson: Paintings in the Luce Foundation Center

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William H. Johnson: Paintings in the Luce Foundation CenterWilliam H. Johnson: Paintings in the Luce Foundation Center

Karen Canova is a dedicated Luce Foundation Center volunteer and art history enthusiast

The Luce Foundation Center currently has 22 paintings on view by William H. Johnson (1901-1970), one of America’s foremost African American artists and a major figure in 20th century art. Luce visitors may notice that Johnson’s paintings appear to be done in two very different styles. These two styles can be separated into time periods, 1926-1938 and 1939-1945.

Artwork Image

Untitled - 1967.59.694 - 81358

William H. Johnson’s Vieille Maison at Porte

Johnson spent the early part of his career in Europe, primarily due to the lack of opportunity for black artists in the U.S. After studying at the National Academy of Design in New York City, Johnson moved to France in 1926 to continue his studies. While living first in Paris, then in the south of France, Johnson painted in the style of the French Impressionists. The painting Vieille Maison at Porte (ca. 1927), is a good example of the artist’s early style, in which he used thick strokes of color to convey the bright sunlight and reflected shadows that fall on an ancient house in the town of Chartres. At some point while still living in France, Johnson was influenced by the German expressionist painters of the 1920s and changed his painting style to emphasize emotional expression rather than external appearances.*

After three years in France, Johnson returned to the U.S. in late 1929. While planning his return to Europe, he first visited his family in Florence, South Carolina, whom he hadn’t seen in twelve years. In Jim (case 30B), a portrait of Johnson’s sixteen-year-old brother, the background is almost equally divided between dark and light shades, seen as an attempt by the artist to evoke his place between two different worlds.

The remaining paintings from Johnson’s European period that can be seen in the Luce Center were all completed when he lived in Scandinavia in the 1930s. Examples include Harbor, Svolvaer, Lofoten (case 30B) and Portrait of a Man (case 30B). While this portrait is almost a caricature, Johnson never intended to satirize his subjects, he always aimed to capture what he called “the essential characteristics” of his sitters, people whose features were shaped by the harsh environments in which they struggled to survive.

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