(Smithsonian American Art Museum; Gift of the Harmon Foundation)

William Henry Johnson (b. 1901)

Moon Over Harlem, ca. 1943-1944

On view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Great Works, In Focus

The man and the moon

After race riots in Harlem, William Johnson painted the pain

William Henry Johnson’s “Moon Over Harlem,” ca. 1943-1944. On view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Smithsonian American Art Museum; Gift of the Harmon Foundation)

Art is always expressing things people don’t want to say into megaphones. It gives voice to inner life and ambivalence, and provides an outlet for people feeling pressure to be on the same page as everyone else. (Being “like-minded,” in my experience, is a state to which the best artists are constitutionally averse.)

William Henry Johnson, a celebrated African American artist who was born in Florence, S.C., in 1901, must have been feeling all kinds of pressure in 1943 when he began painting "Moon Over Harlem." (The painting and a study for it are both owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

Johnson had spent most of the 1930s in Scandinavia, having married Holcha Krake, a Danish textile artist 16 years his senior. As war approached, Johnson’s brother-in-law, the German artist Christoph Voll, was fired from his teaching position. The Nazis had labeled Voll a “degenerate artist.” As a black artist who worked in a knowingly modernist idiom and had married a Nordic woman, Johnson saw the writing on the wall. He returned with Krake to the United States in 1938.

So many African Americans who traveled to Europe seemed to come back with a profoundly altered perspective. Johnson, who had two lengthy spells in Europe, was no different.

He soon found work as a teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center, and he resolved to celebrate black culture in urban settings. He was prolific.

But at the end of 1942, a week after Johnson and his wife had moved to a studio apartment in Greenwich Village, their building caught fire and he lost a great deal of work, along with his art supplies. Krake was then diagnosed with breast cancer.

So Johnson must have been in a bleak frame of mind when he painted “Moon Over Harlem.” It was a response to the race riots that broke out in Harlem in the summer of ’43.

The riots had begun when Robert Bandy, an African American soldier, tried to intervene when he saw police arresting a black woman for disorderly conduct. The police, who said Bandy assaulted them, shot him as he tried to flee. When some people falsely reported that Bandy had died in the hospital (he survived), there was an outcry and two days of rioting ensued.

What’s strange and poignant about “Moon Over Harlem,” which Johnson painted as his wife was dying, is that the policemen are all African American. To me, it looks as if they’re trying to mop up after the riots, which Johnson shows not in their throes, but as the desperate aftermath of a binge of drunken mayhem.

Johnson was intimately familiar with the pain that gave rise to the riots. The proximate cause was police brutality against blacks. But there were plenty of others: wartime food shortages (which were felt with extra acuteness in Harlem), segregation in the military, political disenfranchisement, a long and terrible history of oppression. All this pain was the result of racism, pure and simple.

But Johnson was an artist, so what he painted was not pure and simple: it was complex and ambivalent and it recognized that things needed to change. It was a scene both of pathos (the liquor bottles strewn all over the ground attest to that) and — could it be? — something like tenderness. The style is deliberately crude and folksy, so it’s hard to be sure, but look at the arms of the shortest policeman, toward the right. He is concerned, solicitous. The three black cops in the middle, too, are not “dismembering” the woman in the patterned yellow dress, as one wall label I read proposed. They’re trying to lift her away from her ruin.

Was Johnson painting a dream — an all-African-American police force concerned for its exhausted and abject citizenry? I really don’t know. But if he were dreaming, no one would blame him.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.