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William H. Johnson was an artist who made use of as primitive style of painting to depict the experience of African-Americans during the 1930s and '40s.
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The artistic community of Harlem, New York, which had become more enlightened and experimental following the Harlem Renaissance, embraced the couple, however.
Around this time, Johnson took a job as an art teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center, also continuing to create art in his spare time. Transitioning from expressionism to a primitive style of artwork, or primitivism, Johnson's work during this time displayed brighter colors and two-dimensional objects,
and often included portrayals of African-American life in Harlem, the South and the military. Some of these works, including paintings depicting black soldiers fighting on the front lines as well as the segregation that took place there, served as commentaries on the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. Army during World War II.
While his paintings of African Americans in the United States began to gain attention after they were showcased in exhibitions during the early 1940s, the break of the new decade marked the beginning of a downward spiral for the artist. In 1941, a solo exhibition was held for Johnson at Alma Reed Galleries. The following year, a fire destroyed Johnson's studio, leaving his artwork and supplies reduced to ashes. Two years later, in 1944, Johnson's beloved wife of 14 years, Krake, died of breast cancer.
Following Krake's death, the already unhinged artist became mentally and physically unstable. Though his mind was begging to slip, Johnson still created artwork that would go on to be appreciated for years, including his "Fighters for Freedom" series, featuring paintings of famous American leaders such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Johnson went from one location to the next in an attempt to find comfort and stability after losing his wife, first traveling to his hometown of Florence, South Carolina, then to Harlem, and finally to Denmark in 1946. The following year, however, Johnson was hospitalized in Norway due to his growing mental illness, caused by syphilis. He was transferred to the Central Islip State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Central Islip, Long Island, New York, where he would spend the next 23 years of his life, away from the attention that he'd garnered for his artwork. He died there in 1970, during his extended stay at the hospital.
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