Today the U.S. Postal Service issues a stamp in the honor of William H. Johnson (1901-1970), one of the nation’s foremost African-American artists and a major figure in 20th-century American art. He is best known for his dramatic Scandinavian landscapes and colorful, folk-inspired scenes of African-American daily life.
The stamp, which is the 11th in the American Treasures series, showcases Flowers (1939-1940), a bold oil-on-plywood rendering of brightly colored blooms on a small red table. The two-dimensional, consciously “naive” style in which Flowers was painted was one of the many techniques of modernist abstraction and “primitive” art adapted by Johnson during his career.
William Henry Johnson was born March 18, 1901, in Florence, South Carolina. During his childhood he practiced drawing by copying comic strips from the newspaper. At the age of 17 he went to live with his uncle in Harlem. He worked at a variety of jobs before saving enough money to pay tuition at the prestigious National Academy of Design in New York City, where he was admitted in 1921. During the years he studied at the academy, Johnson took most of his classes from the noted painter Charles Webster Hawthorne, who became his mentor and friend. For three summers, Johnson also attended Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on a work/study arrangement.
In 1926, with funds raised by Hawthorne, Johnson left the U.S. to study modernism in Paris and in the south of France. In November 1929, he returned briefly to New York and set up a studio in Harlem. The following year he received the William E. Harmon Foundation’s gold medal for Distinguished Achievements Among Negroes in the Fine Arts Field.
In May 1930, Johnson moved to Denmark and married textile artist Holcha Krake, whom he had met in France. The couple first made their home in Kerteminde, a Danish fishing village, and later in Norway. For several years they exhibited jointly and traveled throughout Scandinavia, Europe, and North Africa. During this period, Johnson’s work began to reflect his interest in primitivism and folk art.
In November 1938 the couple moved to New York City to escape impending war in Europe. Johnson joined the WPA Federal Art Project in May 1939 and was assigned to teach at the Harlem Community Art Center. In August of that year, he transferred to the WPA mural project. His first major solo exhibition in New York opened in May 1941.
Following his wife’s death in 1944, Johnson’s physical and mental health declined dramatically. He spent the last 23 years of his life in a mental institution on Long Island, where he died on April 13, 1970.
Inspired by Johnson’s life story, the William H. Johnson Foundation for the Arts was established in 2001 to provide economic assistance to African-American artists early in their careers. In 2009, four of Johnson’s paintings were chosen for display in the White House. From 2011 through 2014, a Smithsonian traveling exhibition, “William H. Johnson: An American Modern,” will cross the country showcasing 20 works that highlight key stages in Johnson’s career.
The William H. Johnson stamp is being issued as a Forever® stamp. Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.