The tragic and beautiful life of William H. Johnson
William H. Johnson (1901 - 1970) was an African American painter from South Carolina, who has become known as one of the 20th century's greatest artists. Like many artists, his full talent was never truly appreciated until after his death. Johnson led a life of both great happiness, and great tragedy.
In 1918, Johnson left the rural South to study in New York at the national Academy of Design, where he was acknowledged as one of the most talented artists in his class. When he was not accepted for a traveling scholarship, possibly due to his race, his teacher Charles Hawthorne gave Johnson $1000 so that Johnson could travel to Europe.
Johnson remained in Europe for twelve years, primarily in Denmark and Norway. During this time he created hundreds of works of which were exhibited. There he created a solid reputation for himself. It was in Denmark where he met his Danish wife, Holcha Krake.
In 1938, Johnson returned to New York with Holcha. Just six years later, she died from cancer, leaving Johnson in a world of grief.
To be with his wife's family, Johnson left New York for Denmark in 1946. Soon after, he fell ill with advanced syphilis. He returned to New York and entered the Central Islip State Hospital, where he stayed until his death in 1970.
Before his death, Johnson donated all of his work to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, at the time known as the National Museum of American Art.