Huntington Library Acquires Two Significant Works of American Art

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens added to its holdings two significant works of American art on Saturday. At the annual meeting of its Art Collectors’ Council, the institution acquired a 22-foot-long sculpture carved as a screen for a pipe organ by the prominent African American artist Sargent Claude Johnson (1888–1967) in 1937 as well as Harlem Flats (Back Lot Laundry), an important early painting made in 1907 by Ernest Lawson (1873–1939), one of a group of Ashcan school artists called The Eight.

Harlem Flats was purchased for The Huntington by Overseer Kelvin Davis, who is also a member of the council; he offered to acquire it outright before the group began voting on new acquisitions. The field thus narrowed, the council decided to purchase the organ screen—seizing a rare opportunity to purchase a significant piece commissioned by the Federal Arts Project.

“We were faced with a very impressive slate of works to consider this year,” said John Murdoch, Hannah and Russel Kully Director of Art Collections at The Huntington. “It was clearly imperative that we add the striking, architecturally significant Johnson relief, which will be a focal point of our American art installation. But Lawson’s painting will add meaningful context to one of The Huntington’s greatest strengths—artists of the Ashcan school. We are delighted beyond words to be able to present both of these impressive works to our visitors.”

For the next two weeks, the works will be on view in the Rothenberg Loggia of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. The pipe organ screen will be removed for conservation treatment, and the Lawson soon will be incorporated into the permanent galleries.

Organ Screen for the California School for the Blind
Best known for his imagery of animals and people, particularly African and Native Americans rendered in Abstract Figurative and Early Modern styles, Sargent Johnson was one of the first African American artists in California to achieve a national reputation. He worked as a painter, printmaker, and ceramicist but is best known as a sculptor. Under the auspices of the Federal Arts Project, the visual arts division of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA), Johnson carved a monumental relief of musicians, animals, birds, and plants as a screen for a pipe organ in the hall of the California School for the Blind in Berkeley, Calif. Made of redwood, adorned with paint and gilding, the sculpture was backed with plywood in order to preserve it following its removal from the building after the school relocated and the building became part of the University of California campus.

Works of art created under the Federal Arts Project or WPA are now governed by the General Services Administration, which made a legal and policy decision that the federal government does not retain an ownership interest in site-specific works of art, where the building in which the art was located is not federal property. It thus determined it would not object to the sale of the piece.

“This was an extraordinary opportunity to acquire a monumental WPA sculpture,” said Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington. “It will join our growing collection of American art from the 1930s and will be the first major work by an African American artist to enter The Huntington’s art collections.”

Born in Boston, Mass., to a father of Swedish descent and a mother of African American and Cherokee ancestry, Johnson was orphaned in 1902 and lived for a time with his uncle, Sherman Jackson Williams, and his aunt, the artist May Howard Jackson, who probably introduced Johnson to sculpture. In 1915, Johnson moved to the San Francisco Bay area. The same year, he married Pearl Lawson and began studying at the A. W. Best School of Art. From 1919 to 1923, he attended the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where his teachers included the sculptors Beniamino Bufano and Ralph Stackpole.

From early in his career, Johnson explored the use of modernist forms to create positive representations of African Americans. Like many of his contemporaries, he also studied African carvings and created sculptures that referenced African masks. For Johnson, the purpose of these formal borrowings was to suggest racial continuity and dignity. He began showing his work with the Harmon Foundation of New York in 1926. This distinguished organization, committed to supporting African American art, exhibited many of Johnson’s pieces and helped him earn a national following.

As an employee of the Federal Arts Project in the late 1930s, Johnson held a number of positions, ranging from staff artist to unit supervisor. During this time he produced several monumental works, the first of which was the 22-foot-long screen. In the book that accompanied the exhibition “Sargent Johnson: African American Modernist” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1998, Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins suggests that the figures were derived from the iconography of Saint Francis of Assisi, though she does not cite any specific references. The faces of the musicians recall some of Johnson’s earlier mask-like sculptures. The tree that serves as the background for the figures also seem to suggest the iconography of the Tree of Life—a metaphor for common evolutionary descent that illustrates the inter-relatedness of all life on earth.

Combining the Ashcan School with Impressionism
Harlem Flats attests to Ernest Lawson’s roots in the Ashcan aesthetic. The Ashcan school is defined as a Realist artistic movement that came into prominence in the United States during the early 20th century and is best known for works portraying scenes of daily life in New York’s poorer neighborhoods. This painting depicts the back of Harlem tenements at the Harlem Flats. Lawson created a scene of working-class life with tiers of laundry gracefully suspended from lines strung from the buildings. In the foreground, two men are walking on one of the raised outcroppings of rock located north of 110th Street and east of Eighth Avenue.

Lawson was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After studying at the Kansas City Art Institute with Ella Holman, he followed his father to Mexico City in 1890. There he worked as a draftsman and studied at the San Carlos Art School. By 1891, he had enough money to venture to New York to study art. He enrolled in classes at the Art Students League with John Twachtman, who was an important influence, along with J. Alden Weir, with whom he studied in Cos Cob, Conn., in 1892, and the Impressionist Alfred Sisley, whom he met while in France in 1893. In 1894, he married Ella Holman, and, after living in France, Georgia, and North Carolina, the young family moved to New York in 1898, settling in Washington Heights, where they remained until about 1906. Lawson frequently drew his subjects from around Upper Manhattan long after he moved downtown.

By 1903, Lawson had become acquainted with Robert Henri and the Ashcan painters, and in the ensuing years he grew close to Henri and his circle. As with these other Realists, the places in which he lived and worked formed the principal subject matter of his art, but he abhorred the “sordid and the ugly” and always kept a foot in the camp of the Impressionists. He was repeatedly celebrated for his ability to transform and elevate the mundane through his interpretation that emphasized light, color, and atmosphere. In his later work he went on to emphasize a thick, impressionistic application of paint.

Harlem Flats is one of a group of important early works that reflects Lawson’s kinship with Henri and the Ashcan school. It was among the paintings included in Lawson’s first major solo exhibition presented at the New York School of Art and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1907. The following year, Lawson was included in the landmark independent exhibition of The Eight organized to protest the jury system of the National Academy of Design annuals, though he also became a member of the academy and showed there throughout his life.

One of the great strengths of The Huntington’s collection of American art lies in its representation of painting by members of The Eight, presently including work by John Sloan, Maurice Prendergast, George Luks, William Glackens, and Arthur B. Davies. Ernest Lawson’s painting Harlem Flats will hang in the context of these important Realists and help The Huntington represent the aesthetic diversity of the group.

The Art Collectors’ Council
The Huntington’s Art Collectors’ Council is a group of major donors who support the growth of the collections through active involvement in the acquisition process. They meet every spring to select works for acquisition.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution serving scholars and the general public. More information about The Huntington can be found online at

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published.