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African American Art

William H Johnson

William H. Johnson, Going to Church, ca. 1940-1941

The Smithsonian American Art Museum holds a notable array of more than 2,000 works by African American artists. Going to Church and many other artworks by William H. Johnson form a key component of the collection. This painting depicts an African American family going from their work in the fields to the spiritual support of the church. Johnson’s childhood in rural South Carolina provided a deep wellspring of imagery as he began painting the history, folklore, and spirit of the African American experience. Similarly, artists such as Robert Scott Duncanson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Horace Pippin, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Sam Gilliam tell stories of the South, the Great Migration, Harlem and the Jazz Age, and the struggle for full acceptance as Americans and as artists.


Hughie Lee-Smith, Confrontation, about 1970

From 2003–2005, the museum toured African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, sixty-one rarely lent paintings, sculptures, and photographs to nine U.S. cities. The exhibition featured artists such as Richmond Barthé, Roy DeCarava, Thornton Dial Sr., Gordon Parks, Faith Ringgold, Renée Stout, and Alma Thomas, among others. The 2012 exhibition African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond, which also toured the U.S., presented 100 artworks by forty-three black artists who lived through the tremendous changes of the twentieth century.

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