William H. Johnson

Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice


In the Fighters for Freedom, William H. Johnson created a pantheon of historic and contemporary leaders who dedicated their lives to racial justice, individual accomplishment, and social equality.

The series features African American abolitionists, scientists, teachers, performers and sports figures, and momentous meetings of allied heads of state. Rather than creating separate series featuring individual fighters, as did Jacob Lawrence, Johnson offered portraits surrounded by vignettes that defined the individuals through their accomplishments. Each story is told within a single image.

Through the Fighters for Freedom, William H. Johnson linked past and present and celebrated individuals who, over the course of some two hundred years, had changed the lives of people across the globe. Johnson had been a star student at the National Academy of Design in the 1920s. After graduating, he left Harlem Renaissance New York and headed for Europe, where he spent time living and traveling in Denmark and Norway.

On his return in late 1938, he abandoned his characteristic expressionistic brushwork and adopted a faux-naïve style to depict the lives of black Americans—farming, dancing, and preparing for war. The Fighters for Freedom was Johnson’s last body of work.

By the mid-1940s, devastated by his wife’s death, his mental health deteriorated, and he was hospitalized at Central Islip State Hospital, where he remained, unable to paint, for the last two decades of his life. The exhibition brings together 28 paintings which have not been seen together for almost seventy-five years.


Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)

Space Requirements

185 linear feet

Loan Duration

Touring 2022 - 2027, 3 month loans.


    Artwork Gallery


    Partner Story

    Building new audiences through intentional partnership at Gibbes Museum of Art

    Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice features 29 portraits of African American activists, scientists, and luminaries alongside international heads of state. The portraits were selected from a collection of more than 1,000 works by prolific twentieth-century painter William H. Johnson and given to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by the Harmon Foundation in 1967.

    Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice installation

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