2012 45¢ William H. Johnson
American Treasures Series
Issue Date: April 11, 2012
City: Baltimore, MD
Quantity: 70 million
Printed By: Avery Dennison
Printing Method: Photogravure
Perforations: Die cut 10 ¾
One of the leading African American artists of the 20th century, William H. Johnson nearly faded into obscurity due to tragedy and mental illness.
Raised in poverty, Johnson (1901-70) had an early interest in art, copying comic strips. Despite being recognized as one of the most talented artists in his class at the National Academy of Design, Johnson was overlooked for a traveling scholarship, likely due to his race. His mentor, artist Charles Hawthorne, raised money for Johnson to travel to Europe in 1926. There he met the love of his life, Holcha Krake, and was inspired by Expressionists Paul Gauguin and Chaim Soutine.
Johnson returned to America in 1938, after spending almost a decade abroad. He shifted to a “primitive” style, with bright, contrasting colors and two-dimensional figures. As Johnson’s work gained attention, his wife died in 1944. He traveled briefly and painted until 1947, when mental illness took hold and he was institutionalized until his death.
In 1967, all of Johnson’s 1,300 paintings were donated to the Smithsonian Institution, where they were put on display, reviving interest and establishing him as a leading painter of his time. Perhaps one of his greatest honors came when President Barack Obama chose four of Johnson’s paintings to decorate the White House – the most by any single artist.