The exhibition’s 20 works, including KERTEMINDE HARBOR, 1938, were part of a transfer of nearly 200 pieces from the Smithsonian to historically black colleges and universities. All photographs courtesy Morgan State University and SITES.


William H. Johnson: An American Modern

Archived exhibitions are no longer available for booking but are maintained as a virtual record of past Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) programs.

William Henry Johnson (1901-1970) is a pivotal figure in modern American art. A virtuoso skilled in various media and techniques, he produced thousands of works over a career that spanned decades, continents, and genres. Now, on view in its entirety for the first time, a seminal collection covering key stages in Johnson’s career will be presented in William H. Johnson: An American Modern. Developed by Baltimore’s James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Morgan State University, this SITES exhibition represents a unique opportunity to share the artist’s oeuvre with a broader audience.


Born and raised in Florence, SC, Johnson studied art at the National Academy of Design in New York. During the 1920s and ‘30s, he made several moves between America and Europe, before settling in New York in 1938. Like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, Johnson began probing the black experience, drawing imagery from his southern childhood and Harlem’s upbeat urban ambience. Despite the tragic circumstances of his later years—he spent his last 23 years in a state hospital—Johnson created a body of work that celebrates the dignity and vitality of individuals and the beauty of the land.

This exhibition of 20 expressionist and vernacular landscapes, still life paintings, and portraits explores the intricate layers of Johnson’s diverse cultural perspective as an artist and self-described “primitive and cultured painter.” A planned exhibition catalogue, funded in part by the Henry Luce Foundation, will feature essays by noted scholars, such as David C. Driskell, on such topics as primitivism, modernism, and African American art; African American artists and the art historical canon; identity and aesthetics in art; and art and art scholarship at historically black colleges and universities.

William H. Johnson: An American Modern was developed by Morgan State University and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Morgan State University Foundation, Inc.

Additional support for this exhibition was provided by Ford Motor Company Fund.



Exhibition Specifications

Contents 15 framed paintings, 5 framed works on paper, text and object labels

Planned exhibition catalogue, educational and promotional resources, speakers list, exhibition website

Participation Fee

$20,000 per 12-week booking period, plus prorated shipping

Size 250 running feet
Crates 6-7, 2,100 pounds
Category Art
Security High
Shipping Prorated, $7,200
SITES Contacts

Minnie Russell, 202.633.3160 (Scheduling)
Marquette Folley, 202.633.3111 (Content)

Tour Through July 2014

Tour Itinerary

Opening Closing Host Institution Status
09/10/2011- 12/04/2011 Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, VA Booked
01/06/2012- 03/18/2012 Mennello Museum of American Art, Orlando, FL Booked
04/07/2012- 07/01/2012 James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD Booked
11/03/2012- 01/27/2013 Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH Booked
02/16/2013- 05/12/2013 Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA Booked
06/01/2013- 08/25/2013 Arlington Museum of Art, Arlington, TX Booked
09/21/2013- 12/29/2013 Jones-Carter Gallery, Community Museum Society, Inc. Lake City, SC Booked
01/17/2014- 03/23/2014 Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, PA Booked
04/12/2014- 07/06/2014 Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ Booked



Related Publications

William H. Johnson: An American Modern
Richard J. Powell, Leslie King-Hammond, et al.; Seattle/London: University of Washington Press; 2011; $26.95

This lavishly illustrated book conveys every step along Johnson's artistic journey—from post-impressionist and expressionist works reminiscent of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Soutine, to the vernacular paintings in which Johnson articulates his specific, unforgettable voice as an artist.

William H. Johnson: An American Modern book cover

Educational Resources

William H. Johnson's World on Paper
From Smithsonian's Flickr Photostream
Smithsonian William H. Johnson holdings on Flickr

The Art and Life of William H. Johnson:
A Guide for Teachers

From Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)

William H. Johnson: His Story
Educational website from SAAM
Search for William H. Johnson holdings at the Smithsonian

Press Release

Media only: Jennifer Schommer, 202.633.3121
Media web site:

New Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Features Major American Artist William H. Johnson

A new exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) will feature rare paintings by William H. Johnson, from the collection of the James E. Lewis Museum at Morgan State University. An essential figure in modern American art, William H. Johnson (1901-1970) was a virtuoso skilled in various media and techniques, and produced thousands of works over a career that spanned decades, continents and genres.

William H. Johnson: An American Modern will debut at the Gari Melchers Home and Studio in Fredericksburg, Va., Sept.10 through Dec. 4. It will then continue on a 10-city tour through 2014. Developed by Morgan State University and SITES, the exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Henry Luce Foundation and Morgan State University Foundation Inc.

The pivotal stages of Johnson’s career as a modernist painter are assembled in this group of rarely seen paintings. Every step of his artistic development is conveyed—from his post-impressionist and expressionist works of the 1920s, to vibrant vernacular paintings from the end of his career in the 1940s, in which Johnson articulated his distinctive, unforgettable vision as an American modern artist.

The paintings boast a remarkable history. In 1956 the Harmon Foundation, a nonprofit that helped foster awareness of African art from 1922 until its demise in 1967, took ownership of Johnson’s own collection of art—saving it all from being destroyed. When the foundation had to shut its doors, they donated more than 1,000 works to the Smithsonian’s National Collections of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum). The terms of the agreement called for the Smithsonian to donate artworks to several black colleges and universities, including Morgan State University. The founding chair of Morgan’s art department, James E. Lewis, was first to carefully select these works for his museum’s permanent collection.

The exhibition is complemented by an illustrated companion book William H. Johnson: An American Modern (University of Washington Press, 2011) with essays by Richard J. Powell, Leslie King Hammond and others. The book features some of the world’s premier scholars of Johnson and African American art history re-examining the artist and presenting him in new, fresh ways.

Morgan State University, founded in 1867, is a Carnegie-classified doctoral research institution offering more than 60 academic programs leading to bachelor’s degrees as well as programs at the master’s and doctoral levels. As Maryland’s public urban university, Morgan serves a multiethnic and multiracial student body and seeks to ensure that the doors of higher education are opened as wide as possible to as many as possible. For more information on Morgan State University visit

The National Endowment for the Arts was established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government. To date, the NEA has awarded more than $4 billion to support artistic excellence, creativity and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities. The NEA extends its work through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies and the philanthropic sector. To join the discussion on how art works, visit the NEA at

The Henry Luce Foundation was established in 1936 by Henry R. Luce, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc., to honor his parents who were missionary educators in China. The Foundation builds upon the vision and values of four generations of the Luce family: broadening knowledge and encouraging the highest standards of service and leadership.

Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services works with community partners to advance driving safety, education and American heritage and community life. The Ford Motor Company Fund has operated for more than 60 years with ongoing funding from Ford Motor Company. For more information, visit

SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for almost 60 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play. Exhibition descriptions and tour schedules are available at




Exhibition Specifications

Tour Itinerary

Exhibition Prospectus

Related Publications

Press Release

Educational Resources


If you like this exhibition, you might also like:

Freedom's Sisters (Archives)

Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey (Archives)

Black Wings: American Dreams of Flight (Archives)


»» More Exhibitions


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