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Cagnes Sur Mer A.M., 1929
William H Johnson (1901-1970)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
24 x 29 inches
Signature Details: W.H. Johnson Inscribed on verso: 1929 / W H Johnson / Cagnes Sur Mer A.M.
Status: Private Collection, Atlanta, Georgia

Born in 1901, Johnson left the poverty and racial restrictions of his life in South Carolina at age eighteen, to live with his uncle in New York City.

In 1922 he enrolled as a full-time student at the National Academy of Design, where he was encouraged by Charles Hawthorne, his teacher and mentor. Johnson continued his studies at the Academy until 1926, and with Hawthorne¹s generous financial help, he left for Paris in 1927 to further develop as an artist.

After three months in Paris, Johnson moved to Cagnes-sur-Mer in the south of France where he met and fell in love with Holcha Krake, a Danish textile artist who was traveling with her sister and brother-in-law, the German artist, Christoph Voll. After visiting Denmark with Holcha, Johnson returned to the United States later that year. In New York he was awarded the prestigious Harmon Foundation gold medal award and made a brief trip home to Florence in March 1928, where he painted several portraits of family and friends, as well as paintings of local scenes, such as the eruptive view of the Jacobia Hotel (National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), and a brilliant, van Gogh-like Landscape with Sun Setting, Florence, S.C. (Howard University Gallery, Washington, D.C.) At the conclusion of his visit in April, Johnson was honored with an exhibition at the Florence YMCA where 135 of his paintings were on view.

Johnson returned to Denmark in 1930 to marry Holcha and to begin in earnest his career as an artist. The couple settled in Kerteminde, a small fishing village on the island of Funen where both artists could devote themselves fully to the making of art. In Holcha, Johnson found a most encouraging spouse and together they traveled the region, with Holcha arranging joint exhibitions of their work and newspaper interviews. This exhibition features some of Johnson's best work from the 1930-31 period including Langegade, Kerteminde, a view of the town’s main street, which counterbalances the turbulent, animate forms of the old church building on the right and the town hall on the far left of the canvas; Harbor, Kerteminde, with its agitated perspective, contrasting tones, and slashing brushstrokes; and Gammel Gaard (Old Farmhouse), a more pastoral, but still expressionistic work with its intense brushwork and color.

In 1932, the couple traveled to Tunisia where they learned from local artisans the making of ceramic tiles, a practice which would significantly affect Johnson's next phase of painting. Beginning in 1933, he used a palette knife to thickly apply paint with the resulting surface often

appearing very glossy and almost tile-like (Dråby Church, c. 1934). In 1935 the couple departed for Norway, where Johnson had a one-man show at the prominent Blomqvist Gallery in Oslo. Included in this exhibition were several of the paintings shown here, including the portrait of

Erling Mikkelsen (c. 1934), a work revealing the artist¹s approach towards a greater simplicity of forms, with the use of heavy paint and impasto. The exaggeration and placement of the boy’s hands are elements he would later use in his American portraits.

From Oslo, he and Holcha ventured slowly northward through the popular scenic tourist region of Gudbrandsdal, arriving in the late summer for an extended residence in Volda on the western coast of Norway. Volda Fjord in Spring (c. 1936-37) is similar to Johnson's previous Danish works in the way the paint is applied, but because of Norway’s special light and majestic natural beauty, it reveals his new use of brighter and bolder colors.

In 1938, Johnson and Holcha returned to Denmark briefly before departing for New York City to escape the growing danger of Nazi Germany. In New York, Johnson could not support himself solely on the making of art, so he took a job teaching at the Harlem Community Art Center where he also produced a significant amount of work. One of two such works in this exhibition is the 1939 tempera painting, Street Scene, New York, which probably was a scene in Harlem.

In New York, Johnson increasingly turned his attention to portraying African-American life in a dramatic, flattened style. For the first time in his career he also began to paint works from memory, creating images of farming, family, and religious life in rural South Carolina. In the early 1940s, as Johnson accomplished his stated goal, “the painting of my own people,” he translated the intensity of his earlier, European-based expressionism into a naïve-primitive style that depicted vibrant characters and cultures of black urban and rural life, as well as religious and historical themes.

Distraught after Holcha’s death from cancer in 1944, and disappointed that American collectors did not buy his works as readily as did Danes and Norwegians, Johnson decided that he would move to Europe after the war. After an initial exhibition, Johnson fell ill in 1947, and was found to be suffering from symptoms brought on by advanced syphilis. Late that year, he was returned to New York where he was institutionalized at the state hospital in Long Island.

Johnson never painted again, and his art went into storage under the care of a court-appointed guardian. Most of these works were ultimately acquired by the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian Museum of American Art) which in 1991 mounted a major retrospective exhibition, “Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson.

The art works in this exhibition descend from different Danish and Norwegian collectors, all of whom acquired directly from the artist in the 1930s. Then, between 1994 and 1997, each of these works was acquired by Steve Turner, collector, dealer and co-author of William H. Johnson: Truth Be Told. Roberta Sokolitz.

For more information on this artist and work, please contact us.

This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

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