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A prize-winning artist while still in his teens, African American modernist William H. Johnson (1901–1970) enjoyed an art career that spanned decades and continents. After his youth in South Carolina and New York, Johnson spent the late 1920s and 1930s traveling throughout Europe before settling in Denmark, where he married Danish artist Holcha Krake.
As he absorbed the lessons of European modernism, his work became increasingly expressive and emotional. Along with the threat of war in the late ’30s, Johnson’s desire to “paint his own people” prompted him to return to the United States, where he created powerful scenes of African American life in New York and the rural South in a colorful, consciously folk art style. The last 30 years of his life were tragically marked by mental illness, and from his prolific earlier years, he drifted into obscurity. Today he is considered one of the most important African American artists of his generation.