Frank Tenney Johnson

(1874 - 1939)


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Frank Tenney Johnson

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Raised on a farm on the old Overland Trail, he observed the western migration of people on horseback and in stage coaches and covered wagons.

Born near Big Grove, Iowa, Frank Tenney Johnson, became one of the most famous early 20th-century painters of Western genre.

He was raised on a farm on the old Overland Trail where he observed western migration of people on horseback, in stage coaches, and in covered wagons. At age of 10 he moved with his family to Milwaukee where he apprenticed to panorama painter F.W. Heine whose specialty was painting horses. He then studied with Richard Lorenz, a member of the Society of Western Painters, who gave Johnson valuable techniques as well as great enthusiasm for the West.

In 1895 Johnson made his way to New York City where he eventually studied at the Art Students’ League with such fine art notables as J.H. Twachtman, Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase. His first professional work came to Johnson in the form of illustration commissions for Zane Grey novels and for Field and Stream magazine and other periodicals. In 1904, he went to the Rocky Mountains and Southwest for Field and Stream, which was a life-changing trip that set his style and subject matter for the remainder of his life. He especially learned to love the skies during the day and at night; one of his trademarks became these night scenes.

In the 1920s Johnson became good friends with Clyde Forsythe who he then moved to California with where they shared a studio in Alhambra. They became joint founders of the Biltmore Art Gallery in Los Angeles where Johnson’s easel paintings began to outsell his illustrations. To achieve textural effect his painting technique was to work quickly, using brushes, palette knife, and his fingers.

Johnson summered for most of the 1930s in Wyoming, just outside of Yellowstone Park, where he built a cabin and studio. He spent much time there working and expressing those unique landscapes.

At the peak of his career Johnson’s life came to an unusually unfortunate end. In December, 1938, Johnson attended a party, where he gave a social kiss to his hostess. Within two weeks both were dead from spinal meningitis. In Frank Tenney Johnson’s death, the United States lost one of the most accomplished artists ever to love the Old West.

Best known for painting moonlit night scenes with cowboys and horses, Johnson primed his canvases with a chalk-white base mixed with a portion of vermilion or Spanish red. After he had completed the under painting, he put the canvases aside for a period of a year or more to set. The entire process was said to have accounted for the depth and luminosity of Johnson’s finished works.