Florence County Museum in Florence, SC, Will Celebrate the Birthday of William H. Johnson on March 15, 2015


The Florence County Museum in Florence, SC, will celebrate the birthday of noted artist and Florence native, William H. Johnson on Sunday, Mar. 15, 2015. The celebration will begin at 3pm with a lecture at 3:30pm by museum curator, Stephen W. Motte on the subject of Johnson’s 1930 and 1944 return visits to Florence. The lecture will be followed by a reception with refreshments. This birthday celebration is free to the public. The public is invited to attend and inspect the artist’s work on exhibit.

Photo of “Self Portrait” painted in 1929. This work is one of many on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of “William H. Johnson: New Beginnings”.

“William H. Johnson: New Beginnings” consists of nineteen works by the artist selected from the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Florence Museum Board of Trustees, the Johnson Collection, and a private collector in Denmark. This exhibit will be on display until Oct. 5, 2015.

By almost any standard, William Henry Johnson (1901–1970) can be considered a major American artist. He produced hundreds of works in a virtuosic, eclectic career that spanned several decades as well as several continents. It was not until very recently, however, that his work began to receive the attention it deserves.

Born in Florence to a poor African-American family, Johnson moved to New York at age seventeen. Working a variety of jobs, he saved enough money to pay for an art education at the prestigious National Academy of Design. His mastery of the academy’s rigorous standards gained him both numerous awards and the respect of his teachers and fellow students.

Johnson spent the late 1920s in France, absorbing the lessons of modernism. As a result, his work became more expressive and emotional. During this same period, he met and fell in love with Danish artist Holcha Krake, whom he married in 1930. The couple spent most of the ’30s in Scandinavia, where Johnson’s interest in primitivism art began to have a noticeable impact on his work.

Returning with Holcha to the US in 1938, Johnson immersed himself in the traditions of Afro-America, producing work characterized by its stunning, eloquent, folk art simplicity. A Greenwich Village resident, he became a familiar, if somewhat aloof, figure on the New York art scene. He was also a well-established part of the African-American artistic community at a time when most black artists were still riding the crest of the Harlem Renaissance.

Although Johnson enjoyed a certain degree of success as an artist in this country and abroad, financial security remained elusive. Following his wife’s death in 1944, Johnson’s physical and mental health declined dramatically. In a tragic and drawn-out conclusion to a life of immense creativity, Johnson spent his last twenty-three years in a state hospital on Long Island. By the time of his death in 1970, he had slipped into obscurity. After his death, his entire life’s work was almost disposed of to save storage fees, but it was rescued by friends at the last moment. Over a thousand paintings by Johnson are now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Florence County Museum is located at 111 West Cheves Street, in the new arts district of Florence.

For more information please contact: Stephen W. Motte, Curator of Collection and Interpretations, Florence County Museum by calling 843/676-1200 ext. 58202


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