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Born in 1901 to a poor family in Florence, South Carolina, William H. Johnson moved to New York at age 17, just in time for the first flowering of the Harlem Renaissance, a thriving African American cultural movement. Working a variety of jobs, he saved enough money to pay for an art education at the prestigious National Academy of Design. Johnson worked with painter Charles Hawthorne, who raised funds to send Johnson abroad to study.
He spent the late 1920s in France, absorbing the lessons of modernism. During this period he married Danish artist Holcha Krake, and the couple spent most of the 1930s in Scandinavia, where Johnson's interest in folk art had a profound impact on his work. While in Europe, Johnson also came in contact with the art of Edvard Munch, whose rough-gouged experimental woodcuts inspired a generation of artists in the 1920s to try new printmaking techniques. The unevenly inked areas in some of the artist’s woodblock prints suggest that Johnson did not use a printing press but instead applied pressure to the back of the paper with the bowl of a spoon or the heel of his hand to transfer the wet ink from the block to the paper.
Returning with Holcha to the United States in 1938, Johnson continued to make block prints. At the same time, he was also attracted to the screenprint technique, which was becoming popular with American artists. In fact, it was with his screenprints that Johnson made his most lasting mark as a printmaker. The bright-hued, opaque inks and hand-cut stencils used for making screenprints proved to be ideal for translating the sharp edges and flat expanses of his new tempera painting style, which appears to have been inspired in equal parts by the colorful cartoons of his childhood, the folk art of Scandinavia and North Africa, and the African American folk traditions of the United States.
Although Johnson gained recognition as an artist both in this country and abroad, financial security remained elusive. Following his wife's death in 1944, Johnson’s physical and mental health deteriorated and he spent the final twenty-three years of his life in obscurity, confined to a state hospital in Long Island, New York.