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Town displays work of painter whose art was almost destroyed

Some of William Henry Johnson's artwork is housed

Some of William Henry Johnson's artwork is housed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Credit: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo

By the time he died in 1970 at Central Islip State Hospital, painter William Henry Johnson had faded into virtual obscurity.

Johnson's career had ended 23 years earlier when he was hospitalized for mental illness caused by syphilis. His paintings almost were destroyed when no one would pay to keep them stored in a warehouse.

Today Johnson is considered one of the most important painters of the 20th century. His life and work are being celebrated as part of a Black History Month exhibit at Islip Town Hall.

Prints of more than a dozen of the South Carolina native's oil paintings are on display, including portraits of black heroes such as Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, street scenes of Harlem, chronicles of life in America during World War II and "Flowers" — which appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 2012.

Hundreds of Johnson's paintings are in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which saved the originals from being destroyed after Johnson died.

“Thank God they ended up in the Smithsonian, so we still have them,” said Islip Town historian George J. Munkenbeck, who helped coordinate the Town Hall exhibit. “His artwork brings forth the African-American community at a time when, at times, they were discriminated [against]. … He was one of the people who rose above the segregation.”

Johnson was born in 1901 to a poor family and moved to New York when he was 17. He later studied Modernism and Cubism in Europe and returned to the United States in 1938, settling in Greenwich Village.

He became one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, but illness left him incapacitated in the late 1940s. It would be decades before his work was rediscovered.

"By almost any standard, [Johnson] can be considered a major American artist," the Smithsonian says on its website. "It was not until very recently, however, that his work began to receive the attention it deserves."

Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter said she had not been familiar with Johnson's work, but quickly became a fan.

“It makes you stop and want to think about what he is trying to say in his work,” Carpenter said. "I can’t help but wonder, he spent the last 23 years in the state mental health hospital in CI. If it were today, would he have gotten the help he needed?”

Johnson's grave — unmarked except for a number — is among 5,500 cemetery plots at the site of the former hospital, which closed in 1996. Touro Law Center, which moved to the site in 2007, hosted a Johnson exhibit two years ago, said Ken Rosenblum, a retired associate dean for administration and director of the school's veterans clinic.

"I loved them," Rosenblum said of Johnson's paintings. "The range of his work, the spirit of his work, the way he captures Harlem street scenes. … His work talked to me.”

Munkenbeck called Johnson “one of the hidden pieces of Islip Town history." 

“His art speaks volumes. His people are represented there,” he said. “We are very honored to have this man among us.”

William Henry Johnson's paintings on display at Islip Town Hall include still lifes, landscapes and street scenes:

"Mountain Road"

"Still Life — Fruit, Bottles"

"Mom and Dad"

"Dr. George Washington Carver"

"Booker T. Washington Revelation"

"Harriet Tubman"

"Three Great Abolitionists"

"Moon Over Harlem"

"Art Class"

"Flowers"

"Off to War"

"Jitterbugs"

"Swearing in George Washington"

"Cagnes"

"Self-Portrait"

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