William H. Johnson in Kerteminde: A New Donation to Danish Museum

Today recognized as a major (African) American painter of the 20th century, for eight years, from 1930 to 1938, William H. Johnson (1901-1970) and his Danish wife, the sixteen year older textile artist Holcha Krake – they had met in Cagnes-sur-Mer, then a famous artists’ colony in the south of France (“Montparnasse had moved to Cagnes”) – made Kerteminde, a small fishing village and summer resort on the Danish island of Funen (Fyn), their home-base as they travelled widely in Europe and Africa (Norway, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Tunis).

Johannes Larsen Museet in Kerteminde, once the private home of Danish artist Johannes Larsen (1867-1961), a master draftsman, and his wife, artist Alhed Larsen, as well as a popular meeting place for other artists and writers, has a small collection of works by William H. Johnson.  

And on 17 February 2020 a Danish couple, Karen and Peter H. Bilby, donated three more paintings by Johnson to the museum, this being the couple’s second donation to the museum of works by William H. Johnson, whom Karen Bilby’s parents had known, befriended, and bought some pictures from at the time when the Johnsons were living in Kerteminde.  

In A Painter in the World: 1930-1938, chapter four of his monograph Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson (The National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and Rizzoli, 1991), art critic and historian Richard J. Powell describes Johnson’s years in Kerteminde, his easy familiarity with the local fishermen and the town’s ready acceptance of ‘Den sorte maler’, the strange but handsome and athletic black painter, as part of the local scene.

Powell discuss a number of Johnson’s paintings from Kerteminde, of his fishermen friends (he found them “closer to the sun” than any other people he had met) and other citizens, and of the town itself: Old Salt, Denmark (c. 1931-32), Portrait of Jesper Anderson (c. 1931-32), Kerteminde Harbor (c. 1938). And there is a fine Self-Portrait with Pipe (c. 1937).

During their years in Kerteminde, there were 15 exhibitions of William and Holcha’s works in Scandinavia. And after an exhibition in 1938 in Stockholm, the Swedish capitol, he sold Pige i rød kjole (Girl in a Red Dress, c. 1936) to Moderna Museet (Sweden’s national gallery), the first and only painting acquired by a major museum during Johnson’s active years as an artist.   

Long a part of Johannes Larsen Museet’s permanent exhibition, the brilliant Udsigt over Friheden¸ (c. 1934), with its ‘distorted’ view of the characteristic red tile roofs of Kerteminde, is a painting you have to see and compare to Johannes Larsen’s Red Roofs (1896) with a similar motive.

The new donation from the Bilbys gives you three more reasons to visit Johannes Larsen Museet.

And with these works added to the collection, the museum’s dream of one day mounting a major exhibition of William H. Johnson’s paintings from Kerteminde, Denmark, and perhaps even Norway (Midnight Sun, Lofoten, 1937, a.o.) may be one step closer to coming true.