Malva Gray Johnson

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"Meditation" by Malva Gray Johnson.
"Meditation" by Malva Gray Johnson.
Malva Gray Johnson.

Malvin Gray Johnson was active during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s. He simplified the forms of his subjects and occasionally emphasized his African past by including African imagery in his paintings.

Malvin Gray Johnson’s older sister Maggie gave him his first art supplies and drawing lessons when he was a child. He entered his artworks in contests in his hometown’s annual fairs and, according to Maggie, ​“won first prize on each of them every year.” At the age of sixteen, Johnson moved to New York City and enrolled at the National Academy of Design, working as a clerk and a janitor to pay his tuition. He left school temporarily to serve in World War I, but returned to New York in 1923, where he experienced the Harlem Renaissance firsthand. A few years later, Johnson won a $250 prize from an exhibit sponsored by the Harmon Foundation and continued to show his works with the foundation for the remainder of his career. In the last year of his life, Johnson participated in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program the Public Works of Art Project, before dying suddenly of heart failure. Shortly after his death, a fellow artist praised Johnson for having contributed ​“some of the best painted records of contemporary Negro life.” (DeCwikiel-Kane, ​“New attention for Harlem Renaissance artist with Greensboro roots,” The North Carolina Piedmont Triad, February 28, 2010)


Malvin Gray Johnson was born in Greensboro, North Carolina on January 28, 1896. Johnson started creating artwork as a child. His first drawing lesson was given to him by his sister Maggie, after which he started creating paintings for the local annual fair. At eleven years old, Johnson made New Year’s calendars and sold them to his community.[1]

Johnson left for art school in New York at the age of sixteen, and worked as a janitor and clerk to make ends meet. In 1916, he entered the National Academy of Design, but soon had to leave for military duty in France during World War I.[2] After the war, Johnson returned to New York and re-entered the National Academy of Design in 1923.

During this period, the Harlem Renaissance was really flourishing. In 1925, Johnson participated in an exhibition with the Society of Independent Artists at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in which progressive artists exhibited their work.[3] Between the years of 1927 and 1931, Johnson represented African American spirituals in nine known oil paintings. In 1928, Johnson created his best-known painting, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which launched his career and earned him the $250 Otto H. Khan prize from the Harmon Foundation.

In 1932, Johnson sold his painting, Negress, to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Also at this time, the Musical Art Forum of Orange, New Jersey obtained the largest acquisition of Johnson’s work[4], and Johnson created his work titled Negro Maks, which was gifted to the Hampton University Museum in Hampton, Virginia by the Harmon Foundation.

Johnson later participated in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), in 1934. During this year he created a Self-Portrait, which can be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC alongside another work titled, Brothers. Both pieces were gifted by the Harmon Foundation which recognized African American achievements in many fields such as literature, art, and music. Johnson showed his work in Harmon Foundation exhibitions for several years.

Later in 1934 Johnson traveled to Brightwood, Virginia to paint African American subjects, as well as landscapes. During his visit he finished fifteen oil paintings and eighteen watercolor drawings. Among the first of his landscape paintings was his work, Untitled (Red Road), which represented social relationships. This work was meant to evoke those images in small southern communities. After returning to New York, Johnson died on October 24, 1934 due to heart failure at the age of thirty-eight.

Johnson had become a rising star in the 1920s and ’30s during the Harlem Renaissance, and even had one of his paintings reproduced on the cover of Art Digest. However, due to his early death in 1934, his work started to fall into obscurity.[1] His paintings would come to be appreciated again years after his death, and many of his works are now located in museums, private collections, and in historically black universities.


Known for the dignity with which he portrayed African Americans, Harlem Renaissance artist Malvin Gray Johnson produced some of his most celebrated images not in New York, but in Virginia. In 1934, Johnson used funding he had received from the Works Progress Administration’s Public Works of Art project to return to his native South and record the daily lives of African Americans there. As in his urban scenes, Johnson painted his subjects performing menial tasks with grace and vitality. Alain Locke praised Johnson for his ability to capture the cynical humor and mythical desolation in the moods of blacks better than most other artists. It came as quite a shock when this rising star in the art world died suddenly at the age of thirty-eight after returning to New York City. His death occurred just a few months before his Virginia scenes were to be exhibited in a solo exhibition at Delphic Studio and on the heels of the completion of a documentary film sponsored by the Harmon Foundation that addressed obstacles faced by Johnson and other African American artists.

Gray Johnson’s interest in art began as a youth in Greensboro, North Carolina. Though he may have felt discouraged by the absence of local black artists and lack of formal instruction available to aspiring African American artists, his older sister, a recent graduate of the nearby teachers college, supported his creative inclinations and provided basic lessons. During these early years, Johnson, with his sister’s help, entered his paintings in local fairs and exhibitions whenever possible. Confidence gained from these experiences led Johnson to pursue further studies after his family moved to New York in 1912 and, four years later, to apply for admission into the National Academy of Design. Although his call to service during World War I postponed his enrollment, Johnson returned from his military duty in France determined to complete his training. He experienced considerable success during his tenure at the National Academy, earning nine awards for his art during the late 1920s. Upon graduating in 1927, Johnson worked as a commercial artist and received sponsorship from the WPA.

The classicism of Johnson’s early painting style changed when he encountered African sculpture, Cubism, and Cezanne’s post-impressionism while studying at the National Academy. Inspired by Cezanne’s reduction of forms into basic geometric shapes and facets of color, Johnson began experimenting with color and light in his own work. His later style—characterized by simplified forms, vitality of color, and the incorporation of African imagery and aesthetics into a planar composition—fell under the umbrella of Symbolic Abstraction. Johnson may have gravitated toward abstraction stylistically, but his preference for portraiture, genre, and spiritual subject matter did not change, and his paintings were celebrated for their emotional resonance. In 1928, Johnson’s best known work, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, received the top prize at the Harmon Foundation’s annual exhibition; Roll, Jordan, Roll was entered in the 1931 competition. The press praised Johnson’s spiritual paintings as “evidence of the black artist’s potential to make a distinctive contribution to American culture.”

When Johnson died at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, stunned friends and critics mourned the loss of one of the most influential and promising African American artists of the era. Unfortunately, many museums and galleries that did not prioritize African American art in the 1930s misplaced or lost Johnson’s work shortly after his death. Only sixty works (primarily watercolors and oils) are known to exist today. Johnson’s work is held in the collections of museums nationwide, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Hampton University Museum of Art, and Amistad Research Center.


1896: Born Jan. 28 in Greensboro, one of eight children of Emma and Squire Johnson

1902: Enters the Percy Street School in Greensboro

1905: Receives first drawing lesson and art supplies from his sister, Maggie Johnson Gilmer

1907: Participates in first exhibition at the Central Carolina Fair in Greensboro

1908-11: Wins first place in the Central Carolina Fair exhibitions

1911-12: Executes his first painting, “Cowboy With Horse”

1912: Moves to New York, works as janitor and clerk

1916: Enters the National Academy of Design

1917: Called to military duty in France during World War I

1920: Completes “Study of a Head” after returning from war and gives it to his sister while visiting Greensboro

1923: Re-enters National Academy of Design

1925: Exhibits with the Society of Independent Artists at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel

1926: Receives various prizes at the National Academy of Design

1928-29: Receives the $250 Otto H. Kahn prize for his painting “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” from the Harmon Foundation. Johnson would show his works for several years in Harmon Foundation exhibitions.

1932: Sells a painting “Negress” to the Whitney Museum of Art. The Musical Art Forum of Orange, N.J., makes the single largest acquisition of Johnson’s work.

1934: Employed by the Public Works of Art Project, created by President Roosevelt for struggling artists. Visits Brightwood, Va., and completes several paintings of rural life.

Oct. 24, 1934: Dies suddenly from heart failure after returning to New York. His widow, Bettie, and his brother, William, bring his body back to Greensboro, where it reposed at 407 Stewart St.

Oct. 29, 1934: Buried in Maplewood Cemetery

Sources: Kenneth G. Rodgers and Shawnya Harris, N.C. Central University Art Museum; City of Greensboro cemetery division.GREENSBORO

Malvin Gray Johnson, an artist born and raised in Greensboro, receives new attention decades after his death in 1934

By Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane Staff Writer Feb 4, 2010 Updated Jan 26, 2015 0

No grand monument marks the spot in Maplewood Cemetery where Malvin Gray Johnson’s family laid him to rest

75 years ago.

There’s no marker at all.

Yet somewhere beneath this grassy spot lies the grave of the man whom one researcher calls “the most significant artist to come out of Greensboro.”

After he left his native Greensboro for New York in 1912 at age 16, Johnson became a rising star in the 1920s and 1930s during the explosion of black culture known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Most of his works eventually made their way to historically black universities, some into private collections and a self-portrait into the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

But because he died so young — at 38 — and so long ago, the artist fell into obscurity in Greensboro and in art history.

“I didn’t know that he grew up in Greensboro,” says state Rep. Alma Adams, who shows images of Johnson’s work in her African American art class at Bennett College.

Now, in the past 15 years, Johnson has begun to receive his due.

In 1995, the Delta Arts Center in Winston-Salem exhibited his paintings and drawings.

In 2002, the N.C. Central University Art Museum in Durham organized a retrospective of more than 60 of Johnson’s paintings, watercolors and drawings — some created during his youth in Greensboro.

Last week, Swann Auction Galleries in New York sold at auction what is perhaps his best-known work.

The oil on canvas painting “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” sold for $228,000, which included a 20 percent buyer’s premium. The buyer is a private collector who wants to remain anonymous, the gallery said.

“My goodness,” says Evander “Van” Malvin Gilmer Jr. of Wilmette, Ill., Johnson’s great-nephew and one of his closest living relatives.

Painted in 1928, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” depicts slaves at night singing the spiritual as a chariot and two winged horses appear in the clouds. It measures 49 by

29 inches and is signed “Gray Johnson.”

That painting launched Johnson’s career when it won a $250 prize in an exhibition at the Harmon Foundation, the New York organization that helped gain recognition for African American artists.

Long thought to be lost, the work had been owned by a New Jersey woman whose father had received it from its original buyer, John Wilson Lamb. It is the first time that a Johnson work has been sold at auction.

“For a collection to have a Malvin Gray Johnson is an exceptional thing,” says Nigel Freeman, African American art expert at Swann Galleries.

“This is the Malvin Gray Johnson.”

Truly original

Kenneth G. Rodgers does not mince words about Malvin Gray Johnson.

“In my opinion, he clearly is the most significant artist to come out of Greensboro,” says Rodgers, director of the N.C. Central Art Museum.

“He aspired to be an artist when it wasn’t the most acceptable thing for an African American to do.”

Johnson’s style would be influenced by Impressionism, then Cubism, then African styles. Finally, he painted “folk types and Virginia landscapes with a combination of sardonic humor and mystical pathos,” wrote African American art historian James A. Porter.

But Johnson didn’t live long enough to produce a lot of work — about 100 paintings, watercolors and ink drawings, art historian Jacqueline Francis estimates.

“He developed a stylistic direction that was truly original,” Rodgers says. “I often wonder, had he lived a few more years, what might have happened.”

Rodgers’ interest in Johnson reaches back more than 50 years.

He remembers as a child visiting the home of Maggie Johnson Gilmer, Malvin’s sister, at 407 Stewart St. behind N.C. A&T.

Rodgers’ aunt, Tenner, was married to Gilmer’s son. The couple lived in Gilmer’s house.

Two items on a living room wall caught Rodgers’ eye: a painting of a cowboy and horse and a newspaper clipping describing an award won by Johnson.

Rodgers didn’t know anything about Johnson back then. But “the clipping and the painting would haunt me for a good portion of my adult life,” Rodgers says.

Years later, it would inspire him to delve into Johnson’s life. His quest would take him to the National Archives, to the Library of Congress, to owners of Johnson paintings, and to Johnson experts, such as Jacqueline Francis.

Rodgers’ research would culminate with N.C. Central’s 2002 major exhibition and catalog of Johnson’s life and art.

Among the show’s works were two long out of the public eye: the 1912 “Cowboy and Horse” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

The Greensboro years

Rodgers chronicles Johnson’s life in his exhibition catalog “Climbing Up the Mountain: The Modern Art of Malvin Gray Johnson.”

He was born in 1896 in Greensboro, one of eight children of Emma and Squire Johnson. When Squire went to work for the railroad, the family purchased a home on Forbis Street, now Church Street.

Malvin would become closest to sister Maggie, a Bennett College graduate and teacher. She gave him materials and his first drawing lesson.

A 1958 biographical sketch written by Maggie Gilmer and found by Rodgers, describes Johnson’s early art.

“At the age of 11, he made New Year’s calendars and sold them in the community,” Gilmer wrote. “He drew paintings and put them in the annual fairs in Greensboro. ... To his surprise he won first prize on each of them every year.”

Johnson wanted to pursue art. But the city’s two colleges for African Americans, Bennett College and N.C. A&T, didn’t offer art studies.

He had heard about an art school in New York and begged his mother to let him go, Maggie Gilmer wrote. Emma Johnson wouldn’t consent at first. But she relented, and he left for New York at age 16.

The New York years

By 1916, Johnson had saved enough money from janitor and clerk jobs to enter the National Academy of Design, one of the nation’s oldest art schools.

World War I service interrupted his studies. When he returned, he struggled to save enough money to go back to school.

Sometime during the 1920s, Johnson married his wife, Bettie.

During the mid-1920s, Johnson’s art began to earn attention at school and in exhibitions, including those organized by the Harmon Foundation.

When he won the $250 prize for “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” publications across the country took notice.

“Art has everything to gain through the dissemination of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ for it is worthy of the highest traditions of American painting,” the Art Digest wrote.

Art Digest even reproduced the painting on its cover, says Jacqueline Francis, who wrote her 2000 doctoral dissertation on Johnson and an essay for the 2002 exhibition catalog.

“This was incredible renown for any American painter, much less an African American painter in the 1920s,” Francis says.

In Art Digest, she says, Johnson described his intent:

“I have tried to show the escape of emotions which the plantation slaves felt after being held down all day by the grind of labor and the consciousness of being bound. Set free from their tasks by the end of the day and the darkness, they have gone from their cabin to the river’s edge and are calling upon their God for the freedom which they long.”

Despite his success and continued output, Johnson still struggled financially.

In letters from 1932 to the Harmon Foundation, he wrote that “conditions were terrible,” but that he would continue to paint. He offered to reduce the price of the painting “Climbing Up the Mountain” to $60 to make a sale.

In the last year of his life, Johnson found a new source of income. He participated in the Public Works of Art Project created by President Roosevelt to help struggling artists during the Great Depression.

The money enabled him to go to rural Virginia to paint African American subjects and landscapes.

By fall, he seemed to be on the verge of a major breakthrough for black artists: an exhibition at a respected New York gallery.

It never materialized.

On Oct. 24, 1934, Johnson died suddenly.

The family brought Johnson’s body home to Greensboro, where it reposed at 407 Stewart St.

The next year, a New York gallery held a memorial exhibition.

That same year, Francis writes, art historian Porter praised Johnson for contributing some of “the best painted records of contemporary Negro life.”

A family’s quest

Van Gilmer grew up at 407 Stewart St. with his grandmother, Maggie Gilmer, and his parents.

Like his cousin, Kenneth Rodgers, he remembers the horse painting and the newspaper clipping announcing his great uncle’s art award.

He even remembers throwing darts at the painting in youthful fun — until his father took the darts away.

But he never knew his great uncle, who died before Van Gilmer’s birth in 1943.

Now, the cowboy painting is one of only a handful of Johnson artworks that he and his mother own.

They include the oldest surviving example of Johnson’s work: a charcoal on paper seascape created about 1905. The rest are oil paintings from 1911 and 1912, a pen-and-ink drawing from 1920 and a Christmas card created by Johnson.

The N.C. Museum of Art stabilized and restored the three paintings for N.C. Central’s 2002 exhibition.

News of the auction of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” brought a mix of happiness and sadness to Van Gilmer.

“I am very proud to tell people that I have a great-uncle who was in the Harlem Renaissance who has become known for his paintings, a few of which I have,” Gilmer says.

“For me, it seems like a verification that there is value to his work — that not only reviewers of art have said it is good, but it actually is.”

Then he thinks of how Johnson struggled to earn a living and how his grandmother — Johnson’s sister — spent the rest of her life trying without success to obtain paintings from the Harmon Foundation after he died.

“My grandmother always talked about him and his paintings,” Gilmer says. “She thought the stress of trying to complete paintings for his exhibit caused his heart failure.”

Memos and correspondence in Harmon files indicate that his widow, Bettie, offered several works to the foundation but asked that most be shipped to Maggie Gilmer. A memo suggests that several paintings and watercolors be sent.

The foundation sent a few booklets from Johnson exhibitions but nothing more, Van Gilmer said.

When the foundation closed in 1966, it turned Johnson paintings in its possession over to the National Museum of American Art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Rodgers said.

The National Museum gave several to historically black universities.

“We don’t own any paintings out of the Harlem Renaissance,” Gilmer says. “They may be valuable, and none of the family has benefitted from that.”

Gilmer left Greensboro in 1967. His mother, now 87 and living in Illinois, still owns 407 Stewart St. Because it needs repairs and is vacant, the city has talked about tearing it down.

“I don’t know that I will ever be able to fix it up, but I don’t want to tear it down,” Gilmer says. “It has sentimental value to me and my family.”


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