Our traveling exhibition William H. Johnson: An American Modern is currently on display at Morgan State University’s James E. Lewis Museum, in Baltimore, Maryland, through June 31st. While you might be familiar with the artist William H. Johnson, you may not know the story behind how Johnson’s artwork came into the Smithsonian's collection. The Institution was among three pivotal and inextricably linked players in the history of Johnson’s artwork, the others being Dr. James E. Lewis and the Harmon Foundation.
A bit of background: William H. Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina, in 1901, and is considered an important figure in modern American art. He studied at the National Academy of Design in New York, producing thousands of works that covered several different artistic genres--mainly post impressionism, fauvism, and expressionism.
During the 1920s and '30s, he moved between both America and Europe (France, Denmark, and Norway as well as North Africa), before eventually settling in New York City in 1938. Johnson stopped painting in the late 1940s, after a slow mental decline left him in institutionalized care.
With no living family and no storage space to house his paintings, Johnson's work was nearly destroyed. In 1956, however, the Harmon Foundation, a non-profit organization that helped foster awareness of African American art, stepped in and rescued the works. The foundation took ownership of Johnson's books and paintings--some 1,154 of them to be exact. When the foundation itself finally had to shut its doors in 1967, the Johnson works went to the Smithsonian’s National Collections of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum).
The terms of the agreement stipulated that the Smithsonian donate some artwork to black colleges and universities, including Baltimore’s Morgan State University. The founding chair of Morgan’s art department, Dr. James E. Lewis, was the first to carefully select works for his museum’s permanent collection. Lewis chose 20 works that embodied the critical stages of Johnson’s career, including his post-impressionist and expressionist works of the 1920s and his vernacular paintings from the end of his career in the 1940s. Johnson’s style was somewhat similar to Van Gogh and Cezanne's, and yet there was an acknowledgement that Johnson's works were distinctive, unforgettable visions from an modern American artist.
Now SITES is the first organization to travel all 20 of Johnson’s seminal works from Morgan State‘s collection. The Smithsonian has truly come full circle with William H. Johnson. Not only has it been able to carry out the Harmon Foundation’s wishes by dispensing Johnson’s work to Morgan State University, but we've also had the privilege of being able to share these works with people across the country.
William H. Johnson: An American Modern was developed by Morgan State University and SITES, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Morgan State University Foundation, Inc. Additional support for this exhibition was provided by Ford Motor Company Fund.
>> Chronology of Johnson's life, coutesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
--Christin Chism, SITES public relations associate