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Frank Tenney Johnson (1874 - 1939)
California Impressionism
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Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939)

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, and he apprenticed there to panorama painter F.W. Heine (1845-1921), whose specialty was painting horses. From that time, Johnson was ever studying the horse and became noted for his ability to portray it accurately. Then he studied with Richard Lorenz, a member of the Society of Western Painters, and he gave Johnson valuable techniques as well as great enthusiasm for the West. Inheriting a small amount of money allowed Johnson in 1895 to go to New York to study at the Art Students League for five months. Then he returned to Milwaukee and worked as a free-lance illustrator until he and his wife could afford to return to New York, and this time he studied with John Twachtman, Robert Henri, and William Merritt Chase. In 1904, he went to the Rocky Mountains and Southwest for "Field and Stream" magazine, and this was a life-changing trip in that he 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, and one of his trademarks became his night scenes. To achieve a certain luminosity, he carefully studied the skies in Maxfield Parish's paintings. He was so successful in his "Field and Stream" assignment that he continued to make many trips West including a 1912 visit to Arizona where he, on a cross-country train trip, stayed several days at Winslow. During the 1920s, he settled in Alhambra, California and shared a studio with Clyde Forsythe, and his easel paintings began to outsell his illustrations. He did a series of murals in a famous Los Angeles movie house called the Cathy Circle Theater. His painting technique to achieve textural effect was to work quickly, using brushes, palette knife, and his fingers. In the 1930s, deciding to spend his summers away from Alhambra, Johnson built a cabin and studio on the north fork of the Shoshone River in Wyoming, just outside the east gate of Yellowstone Park. For seven years, from 1931 to 1938, he spent much time hiking in the park and painting scenes of its unique landscapes. It has been written that he was a man who "represented the best in the Old West." He was six feet two inches, handsome, virile and admired. For one of his exhibits at the Grand Central Art Galleries at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, Amon Carter bought the entire exhibition. Shortly afterwards, Johnson went to a dance in Los Angeles, kissed a pretty girl and died the next morning (January 1, 1939) from meningitis.

Bio courtesy Edan Hughes, Artists in California.