The Harlem Renaissance

and William H. Johnson


- Introduction
- Art in Harlem Renaissance
- Johnson's Life & Influence
- Street Life, Harlem
- Conclusion

- Works Cited

The 1920's greeted Harlem, New York with an era of change filled with optimism, energy, and fun. The Harlem Renaissance produced several renowned African American figures, among whom the names Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, and Aaron Douglas stand out. During this period of innovation, African American culture sprouted in several different directions. As the syncopated beat of Jazz played through the streets and "rent parties" raged on in apartment buildings, creativity erupted further, bringing even more inspiration and many more new names. William H. Johnson, a prominent painter of the time, contributed to this era of the "new Negro," his vibrant paintings filled with the exuberance of Harlem in the "Roaring Twenties".


During the 1920's, as city life became livelier, many African American artists depicted the scenes of the upbeat nightlife in Harlem, New York. Following the Great Migration of blacks to northern cities like New York, Harlem and other urban areas became the setting to huge celebratory nights and an all-around fun-filled atmosphere. Suddenly, as result of the emerging energetic society, African American art grew to depict the new jazzy age where the black American began to ascend the ladder of social structure. The scenes portrayed in the paintings of Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, and William Johnson all incorporate the rising status of the "new Negro" and also depict joyous sights of the Harlem Renaissance. This style of painting, along with other innovations during the Harlem Renaissance, became its one separate movement and helped to give the African American populace something to grasp and set them apart from white America. The art of the era brought the jazz music everyone enjoyed so much to the canvas and allowed the joyfulness to be experienced through the visual sense. With the jazz craze and jitterbug flooding the streets, the Harlem Renaissance artists added to the flavor of the alluring atmosphere. This new optimistic art style offered African Americans a pathway to celebrate and take pride in their heritage and culture.


While many artists aptly portrayed the "Roaring Twenties" in a jazzy manner, William H. Johnson stands out as one of the most influential African American painters of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in 1901 in a small South Carolina town, Johnson flowed with the Great Migration and journeyed to New York when he turned seventeen. There, he studied at the National Academy of Design and later taught at the Harlem Community Art Center. While working there, Johnson painted many of the scenes of city life before him, as in Moon over Harlem and Street Life, Harlem. "In New York in 1938 with his Danish wife, Johnson captured the edginess of city life in bluesy, nervous paintings"(Powell 138). His vibrant use of colors and the ways in which he presented a flashy scene influenced later artists like Jacob Lawrence to also elaborate on the stylish forms of society in Harlem life. In addition to the obvious reflection of Johnson's artworks in many rising African American artists, Johnson also helped to promote the era of glitter with his powerful, educated actions promoting black rights and equality (Miers 18). William H. Johnson created a style in his own that reflected the jazzy "flapper" style of era and paved the way for artists to come in the future.


        Although all of his paintings carried heavy influential weight, one of the most influential pieces of art brought by William H. Johnson was his 1939 Street Life, Harlem. This colorful painting served as a direct representation of the jazz lifestyle led by several African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. Centered in the piece are a black man and woman standing strong and predominantly among the city skyline. "These two persons, clad in their stylish dress and standing as tall as the building backdrop, create the feeling that the black populace of America had grown and was now just as strong as the white population" (Marvis 84). Furthermore, the bright, vibrant colors used in this piece show the elaborate styles of the Roaring Twenties. Even the background provides a jazzy feel: "the multicolored buildings around [the people] seem to throb and pulsate with life" (William 6). Everything in this era of innovation and creativity was filled with life and exuberance, as portrayed in Johnson's painting. His painting further illustrates Harlem life directly with the crescent moon rising between the building tops; this signifies that the life and excitement of the city most often took place during the wee-hours of the evening. William H. Johnson's Street Life, Harlem serves as one of several Harlem Renaissance paintings that elaborated upon the glimmer of society and the rise of African American stature.



Art as a whole revolutionized during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's and 1930's into a form of expression of leading an exciting life. In the case of William Henry Johnson, art served as a procedure to show one's excitement and enjoyment of the jazz-filled, glittery Harlem life of the 1920's. In his paintings and in the works of several other African Americans during the time, excitement and vigor fill each canvas. The Roaring Twenties, as shown through the art of William H. Johnson and various others "were the best of times" for African Americans as they grew in societal status and gained a form of celebration and pride in their heritage.


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