Gallery Artists > Frank Tenney Johnson Biography :

Frank Tenney Johnson (1874 - 1939)  Artworks >>

Organizations* : NA

Internationally famous for his cowboys and his moonlight scenes on the open range, Frank Tenney Johnson was born on June 28, 1874, in the Iowa hamlet of Big Grove. He roamed the countryside along the banks of the Missouri River where Lewis and Clark had traveled in 1804. There, he observed western migration of people on horseback, in stagecoaches, 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, whose specialty was painting horses. From that time, Johnson was ever studying the horse and became noted for his ability to portray it accurately.

Later Johnson 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. Soon he was making occasional trips to the Indian country of South Dakota to sketch the inhabitants. Like many beginning artists of his day Johnson hoped to travel to New York to study at the Art Students League, which he was able to do in 1895. A few years later he enrolled in classes at the New York Art School under Robert Henri and William Merrit Chase, which further shaped his art.

In 1904, he went to the Rocky Mountains and Southwest for Field and Stream magazine, and this was a life-changing trip in that it determined his style and subject matter for the remainder of his life. During his stay in Manuelita, New Mexico, Johnson became entranced with night scenes. “There is a fine old picturesque trading post here, where the Navajos are constantly coming and going, particularly at night,” Johnson wrote in a letter to his wife. “They do a lot of their traveling across the desert at night, to avoid the intense desert heat during the daytime. But seeing these people in the moonlight or even the magic light of just the stars has impressed me very deeply. What paintings I can make of some of the scenes around the trading post.” That trip influenced him so much that he developed his “Johnson moonlight” technique; his paintings showing cowboys under the stars became nationally famous.

Johnson was an excellent draftsman. He used the best materials available to an artist. As did others, Johnson painted with brush, knife and fingers. Above all, Johnson painted scenes of the West that were tableau-like; he rendered romantic, poetic Western genre scenes that differed entirely from the stop-action, narrative works of his contemporaries, C.M. Russell and Frederic Remington.

Johnson was among the most reflective, introspective artists ever to paint the West. He was at the height of his career when he suddenly died in 1939 of spinal meningitis. It has been written that he was a man who “represented the best in the Old West.”

Reference: The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier, edited by Dr. Rick Stewart,

  • NA = National Academy
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