William H. Johnson: New Beginnings features nineteen works from the life of Florence native, William Henry Johnson (1901-1970) 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 selection not only represents the range of distinct periods over the artist’s prolific career, but it also offers a rare personal glimpse into the artist’s relationship with the people and places of Florence, America, & Europe.
In 1901, William H. Johnson was born in Florence SC. At the age of 17, he traveled and studied in America and Europe, producing and exhibiting art that reflected the styles and attitudes of the world around him. Fearing the eminent onset of war in Europe, Johnson returned to the United States in 1938. Over the course of the next decade, his art transformed into the intense, “primitivist” style he is recognized for today. Both vibrant and somber, these abstracted paintings depict the African-American experience from both a historical and personal perspective.
Today the Smithsonian American Art Museum owns more work by Johnson than any other single artist. In 2009, two of Johnson’s works painted during the artist’s 1944 visit to Florence, were among those chosen by First Lady Michelle Obama as decoration for the White House.