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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Johnson, William Henry


Commodore Peary and Henson at the North Pole
c.1945
oil on paperboard
70.1 x 90.3 cm
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA
-Fair use-

This painting chronicles the men’s exploration of the North Pole on April 6, 1909. Commodore Peary's claim that his party is the first to reach the North Pole was widely credited for most of the 20th century, rather than the competing claim by Frederick Cook, who said he got there a year earlier. Modern historians generally think Cook did not reach the pole. Based on an evaluation of Peary's records by Wally Herbert, also a polar explorer, he concluded in a 1989 book that Peary did not reach the pole, although he may have been as close as 5 miles (8 km). His conclusions have been widely accepted.
Matthew Alexander Henson was the member of the 1909 expedition to the North Pole. Henson was the first African American voted into the Explorers Club in New York (1937). He received recognition by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower before his death in 1955 at the age of 88.

William Henry Johnson (1901-1970) was one of the great American artists of the 20th century. Johnson, an African American from the rural South, born in Florence, South Carolina, overcame poverty, racial prejudice and a grade-school education to become one of the country's leading artists.

After deciding to pursue his dreams as an artist, he attended the National Academy of Design in New York and met his mentor, Charles Webster Hawthorne. After graduating, he moved to Paris, traveled throughout Europe and was exposed to new kinds of artistic creations and artists. Upon his return to the United States, Johnson used a primitive style of painting in conjunction with what was considered a "folk" style, using of bright colors and two-dimensional figures. He spent his final 23 years of life in a mental hospital in Central Islip, New York, where he died in 1970.

Through the force of his personality and with a steadfast belief in himself, Johnson created an art entirely his own, original and fresh. In 2012, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in Johnson's honor, recognizing him as one of the nation’s foremost African-American artists and a major figure in 20th-century American art.