African American Print & Visual Media at the Nat'l Archives, no. 1

John Welch

William H. Johnson (1901-1970)Landscape with Sun Setting, 1930, Harmon Foundation, Series: Artworks by Negro Artists, compiled 1922-1967The collections at the National Archives include a trove of documents, photographs and film related to African American artists. We invited art historian John Welch to survey these materials and comment on what he finds in an occasional column.

Hotel porter, cook, and stevedore in New York City, c. 1918-25; began formal art study, 1921; performed maintenance work and studied art in Paris, 1926; first one-person show, Paris, 1927; returned to New York, 1929; settled in Kerteminde, Denmark, 1930; painted in Norway and Sweden, 1935-38, and in New York, 1938-45; left the United States for Denmark, 1946; diagnosed with paresis in Oslo, Norway, 1947; confined to Islip State Hospital, New York, until his death in 1970. Works acquired by the Harmon Foundation, 1956; foundation ceased operations, 1967, donating 1,154 of Johnson's works to the Smithsonian Institution's National Collection of Fine Arts (now part of the National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC); Smithsonian Institution originated a major retrospective of Johnson's work, 1971, and an exhibition focusing on the artist's Scandinavian years, 1982; works included in "Harlem Renaissance: Art in Black America" exhibition originated by the Studio Museum in Harlem, 1987; major retrospective, fall 1991.[i]

William H. Johnson at work.  Photo: Harmon Foundation Collection, National ArchivesCelebrated for his evocative landscapes influenced by European modernists such as Van Gogh and Soutine, this Florence, S.C. scene with its energized serpentine path meandering between picturesque houses creaking with presence, and stark yet sentient trees, reflect the artist’s love of Expressionism. During his northern European forays between 1930-38, accompanied by his Danish wife and fellow artist Holcha Krake, Johnson crystallized his reputation as a virtuoso expressionist painter. “Although the subject of these works was ostensibly just the landscapes, Johnson often infused the mountains, fjords and foliage with a lively, almost animated quality”.[ii] The rapidity of brushstroke and palpable texture are characteristic of Expressionism which can also be seen in his vibrant setting sun and complementary evergreen trees stretching out before two figures on horseback before the horizon.

As a biracial son of the American South, Johnson found affinities between the toil and lifestyle of Northern European fishing villages and that of his own rural childhood.[iii


“The chattel records conclusively prove that Johnson was a mulatto, the son of a white man and a black slave woman owned by a William Wheeler, Sr. On July 15, 1782, the clerk of the Baltimore County court enrolled two documents, the bill of sale and the release from bondage of a slave named Joshua, ‘now aged upwards of Nineteen Years’. The bill records that on October 6, 1764, Wheeler had sold the child to George Johnston or Johnson—the name is spelled both ways in the document—for £25 current money of Maryland, about half the price of an adult male prime slave field hand…”[i]

Now a canonical American folk painter of the colonial era, Joshua Johnson’s once contested race is no longer a mystery. Baltimore County court chattel records received by The Maryland Historical Society’s Department of Manuscripts, as noted above, concluded race speculation about this artist who was once thought to be a refugee who fled Santo Domingo following the slave insurrection of 1793 or a slave or apprentice to the Charles Wilson Peale family.[ii] While the artist’s origins are less contested, his stylistic influences are still under debate. The symmetrical composition on view with this work--children positioned between parents at either end of a sofa, employing gestures of affection that signal a familiar relationship is uncommon for portraits of the era. The flattened perspective in this work, thin paint and linear quality of objects and subjects is common for primitive works of the period, as is the specific treatment of the sofa with delineated brass tacks that earned the artist the nickname “brass tack artist” among some scholars.[iii] Still at issue are claims as to whether Johnson is most influenced by an apprenticeship with the Peale family, especially Charles Peale Polk, or whether his stylistic influences are more readily attributable to other painters of the era such as Ralph Earl (1751-1801) or his son Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (1788-1838). More recent scholarship seems to favor the latter influences, especially given this work’s inclusion of a family portrait akin to Earl’s models, and the affinities the artist may have absorbed from the common visual vocabulary of the colonial era.

With no formal academic training as a painter, Johnson is celebrated for his approximately 80 works of prosperous seamen, merchants and their families in Baltimore, Maryland. His works signal both the affluence and virtue of his sitters. “In 1798 Johnson advertised his work in the Baltimore Intelligencer…as a ‘self-taught genius’, a limner, a nonacademic portrait painter in a naïve style.”[iv]

Robert S. Duncanson, Blue Hole, Little Miami River (1851), Series: Artworks by Negro Artists, compiled 1922-1967, Collection: Harmon Foundation Collection, 1922-1967“Duncanson’s circular pool evokes both the visual language of [Thomas] Cole and literary equivalents of [Henry David] Thoreau. Its tranquil surface mirrors the rocks and forest at each side and in the center the great wedge of luminous sky, holding in balance man and nature as well as the worlds of fact and spirit…”[i]

Drawing upon the compositional and philosophical influences of Hudson River School master Thomas Cole and his followers, this work exhibits characteristic pictorial elements such as balanced composition; realistic rendering of foliage, rock and fauna; dazzling middle ground treatments with expansive water or serpentine paths; openings to the horizon with atmospheric effect and human figures scaled to portray the majesty of nature in relation to their presence. Blue Hole, Little Miami River depicts a tributary of the Ohio River east of Cincinnati which by the early 1850s had become “…a thriving center of east-west settlement and north south commerce…”.[ii]  In his 2010 Reflections on the American Landscape, John Wilmerding cites Cole’s 1835 “Essay on American Scenery”, and Thoreau’s Journal and Walden, dated 1851 and 1854 respectively, as influences which may have informed both Duncanson’s hand and sensibility here.

As an African-American artist whose oeuvre was largely resurrected in the 1950s by Howard University scholar James A. Porter[iii], and who is now recognized, as he was in 1861, as, perhaps, “the best landscape painter in the west”[iv], Duncanson’s biography, and interpretations of his work, provide a lens to illuminate the social and professional experience of blacks from his strata of antebellum America. This is the broad perspective that art historian Lisa Farrington takes in viewing Ducanson's experiece:

"Duncanson emigrated from Canada to the United States in the 1840s. Originally born in Seneca County, New York, [he] was the son of a Scottish-Canadian father and an African-American mother. Spending his youth in Canada with his father, the artist received an excellent public education and was able to avoid much of the racial prejudice that his mother encountered in her home town of Cincinnati. . .[he] benefitted from the liberal treatment of African-Americans in the north. . .and the local anti-slavery league sponsored Duncanson’s frequent trips to Europe. [He] began his career as a housepainter and taught himself art by copying engravings of European masterpieces. .  .The combined forces of abolitionist support and the artist’s own talents and perseverance led to a highly successful career for the painter as an interpreter of romantic landscapes. . .A man of fair complexion whose African heritage was not readily apparent, Duncanson was easily accepted into the Cincinnati art community and able to study at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.  .”[v] 

The bi-racial ‘black’ experience of artists such as Duncanson in pre-Civil War America is further clarified in recent work by Lisa Farrington and Margaret Vendrys[vi]. Farrington argues that some histories of professional nineteenth century African-American artists begin with Henry Ossawa Tanner and do not adequately credit bi-racial antecedents like Duncanson as vital precursors to understanding the nineteenth century reception of succeeding African-American artists:

“For most scholars, curators, collectors, and aficionados of American art, the history of African-American professional artists begins with Henry Tanner (1859-1937), whose unparalleled career as a student of Thomas Eakins…as the darling of religious painting at the Paris Salon, and as the most highly sought-after African-American expatriate artist in France overshadows the careers of so many of his predecessors. Nevertheless, Tanner’s career, at least to some degree, stands upon the shoulders of these ‘black and white’ antecedents who, both despite and because of their racial origins, gained entrée into art schools, access to clients, and financial advantages for which so many others of African descent could never hope…”[vii]

While Vendryes calls into question contemporary readings of Duncanson as a ‘race man’ intent on advocacy of slave liberation through his aesthetic engagement with landscape:

“…Rather than acting as a race man, or producing landscape art that contains either explicit or veiled racial content, I would suggest that Duncanson’s career shows us a man who used his race to further his professional ambitions, and at the same time claimed the right, as an artist and a freeman, to transcend racial classifications altogether…”[viii]

The extent to which hidden metaphoric meaning about slavery or ‘blackness’ infuses this artist’s masterworks remains contested, especially at the date of this work in 1851. Yet, what appears most evident is that this painting is an “inspired American landscape”[ix] which extols the mainstream aesthetic and philosophical yearnings of its age.

John Welch, Ph.D., is an art historian who lives in Philadelphia.


[i] Contemporary Black Biography, 1992

[ii] Powell, Richard J., Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson, Rizzoli, 1991.

[iii] Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America, The Studio Museum in Harlem/Harry N. Abrams, 1987.

[i] Jennifer Bryan and Robert Torchia, “The Mysterious Portraitist Joshua Johnson”, Archives of The American Art Journal, vol. 36, no. 2 (1996), pp.2-7.

[ii] ibid

[iii] Joshua Johnson.” Notable Black American Men, Book II. Ed. Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Biography in Context.


[i] John Wilmerding, “Reflections on the American Landscape”, Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2010.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] J. Porter: ‘Robert S. Duncanson Midwestern Romantic-Realist’, Art in America, October, 1951.

[iv] Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 1861.

[v] Lisa E. Farrington, “Black or White? Racial identity in Nineteenth-Century African-American Art”, Notes in the History of Art, vol. 31, no. 3, Special Issue: Cross-Cultural Issues in Art From the Nineteenth Century To The Present (Spring 2012), pp.5-12.

[vi]Margaret Rose Vendryes, “Race Identity/Identifying Race: Robert S. Duncanson and Nineteenth-Century American Painting”, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 27 No. 1, Terrain of Freedom: American Art and the Civil War (2001), pp. 82-99+103-104.

[vii] Lisa E. Farrington, “Black or White?: Racial identity in Nineteenth-Century African-American Art”, Notes in the History of Art, vol. 31, no. 3, Special Issue: Cross-Cultural Issues in Art From the Nineteenth Century To The Present (Spring 2012), pp.5-12.

[viii] Vendryes, p. 83.

[ix] John Wilmerding, “Reflections on the American Landscape”, Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2010.