Many people have seen some of the paintings of Frank Tenney Johnson, but most know very little about this great painter. Like many successful painters, Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939) lived an interesting life outside the studio that helps us enjoy and appreciate the paintings done inside the studio all the more…
Frank Tenney Johnson was born on his family’s farm which was located along the old Overland Trail, near the town of Oakland, Iowa. According to The Frank Tenney Johnson Book: A Master Painter of the Old West, at age 14 he moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was in Milwaukee that Frank was first given the opportunity to view oil paintings at an art gallery. This first encounter with oil paintings inspired him and instilled in him a determination to want to draw and paint.
15 Interesting Notes about Frank Tenney Johnson
- In 1895 Frank Tenney Johnson inherited $225 from an aunt. He proceeded to go to New York City and study at the Art Students League. The money lasted five months and when it was gone, back to Milwaukee he went.
- Mr. Johnson was married for 43 years to his wife Vinnie, who was not only his wife, but by all accounts a smart, steadfast supporter and great asset to his art career. Vinnie also hosted studio parties that became popular with artists, musicians, and others that might possibly advance Frank’s career. Mr. Johnson himself could play the guitar and would even sing classical or cowboy songs.
- After getting married, Frank Tenney Johnson and his wife moved to New York City where Frank was able to study with Robert Henri and William Merrit Chase.
- While camping on a trip west in 1912 while visiting Glacier Park, President Taft and his party set up their camp across the river from the Johnson’s camp.
- Frank Tenney Johnson liked to do other things in addition to painting. He liked to build things with his hands. Some of things he made were things such as camping gear to fit in the car, puppets, and gadgets for around the house.
- In 1922 the Johnson’s traveled from New York City to Southern California in hopes of Frank breaking away from illustration and moving towards a full-time easel painting career. In their carefully kept record books, Frank apparently only sold one painting that whole summer, and did not have any other income until December where there was an entry for $233.33, which was a commission for a painting that sold at a gallery back in Los Angeles. In that same record book there was not another sale until well into 1923.
- In March of 1923, Frank Tenney Johnson was awarded the “Shaw Purchase Prize” at the Salmagundi Club’s annual exhibition of member paintings. The prize was $1000, and the painting was “The Wanderer.”
- Frank Tenney Johnson developed a strong following in Los Angeles and Hollywood. Noted celebrities that purchased a Frank Tenney Johnson painting included actor James Cruz, Douglas Fairbanks and William Wrigley.
- Frank Tenney Johnson was very particular, especially when painting one of his night paintings, or “nocturnes.” These paintings were the most popular when he was alive and are the most popular today. With these particular paintings Mr. Johnson spent considerable time and experimentation trying to improve and develop his technique. He was also very particular in his portrayal of horses in his paintings, and he was quite fond of them too.
- On March 18, 1929, Frank Tenney Johnson was elected an Associate of the National Academy. Because of this Mr. Johnson was able to append his signature with the initials “A.N.A” on his paintings. He also took this opportunity to shorten his signature to “F. Tenney Johnson, A.N.A.”
- On the very day of the Stock Market Crash in 1929, Mr. Johnson was to close a deal to sell $10,000 worth of his paintings to a single individual in Los Angeles. It didn’t happen that day, but the following week the buyer said he would buy the paintings anyway. The situation with the economy and the stock market only worsened, and the man left for New York without buying the paintings.
- Frank Tenney Johnson was the 15th president of the California Art Club from 1935 to 1938.
- On April 28, 1937, Frank Tenney Johnson received word that he had been elected an “academician” the ultimate in formal recognition for an American artist. He could now follow his signature with N.A.
- On December 19, 1938, Frank Tenney Johnson met with friends (a husband and wife who he had not seen in quite some time), and upon seeing the couple, he apparently greeted the wife with a social kiss. A few days later the woman was taken to a hospital where she was diagnosed as having spinal meningitis, and she died quickly thereafter. That same day Mr. Johnson felt ill. When his fever did not break the following day, Mrs. Johnson called a doctor. The doctor recognized the symptoms and got him to the hospital, but Frank Tenney Johnson died on January 1.
- Frank Tenney Johnson was known to work rapidly, but he was meticulous. If he did not like the way a painting was turning out, he would set it aside and work on another. There were many unfinished and unsigned paintings inside his studios at the time of his death.
Frank Tenney Johnson – Top 5 Auction Results
“Silent Night” oil, 30″ x 40″ $1,120,000 7-28-2007
“The Sheriff’s Posse” oil, c. 1926, 36″ x 46″, $1079,000 7-26-2008
“The Night Hawk” oil, c. 1936, 24″ x 30″ $700,000 3-31-2007
“Canyon Solitude” oil, 52.2″ x 32.2″, $672,000 7-28-2007
“Time to Wake the Cook” oil, c. 1937, 48″ x 72″ $657,000 11-28-2007
If you would like to read more about Frank Tenney Johnson, there is a fantastic book titled “The Frank Tenney Johnson Book” by Harold McCracken. First published by Doubleday in 1974. The book is full of great information and many color and black and white images of Johnson’s work.
If you like reading about and seeing great oil paintings, check out this article on the paintings of Clark Hulings. Clark Hulings was not a cowboy artist like Frank Tenney Johnson, but one of America’s greatest.
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Bibliography: McCracken, Harold, and Frank Tenney Johnson. The Frank Tenney Johnson Book; a Master Painter of the Old West. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974. Print.