Frank Tenney Johnson Biography

Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939) was born near Big Grove, Iowa and would become an important early 20th-century American Western artist. 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. This exposure to the American West would prove to be an important influence and inspiration for Frank Tenney Johnson as an artist and painter of the American West.

At the age of 10, Frank Tenney Johnson moved with his family to Milwaukee and studied under the panorama painter F.W. Heine who specialized in painting horses and western genre. From that point forward, the artist continued studying the horse and became noted for his talent to masterfully portray it. Frank Tenney Johnson then studied under Richard Lorenz who was a member of the Society of Western Painters. Lorenz taught Johnson valuable painting techniques and further fueled his great enthusiasm for the West.

Frank Tenney Johnson inherited a modest sum of money which allowed him to go to New York in 1895 to study at the Art Students League. The artist and painter then returned to Milwaukee and worked as an illustrator until he and his wife had the means to return to New York where he studied with John Twachtman, Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase.

In 1904, Frank Tenney Johnson traveled to the Rocky Mountains and Southwest for Field and Stream magazine and this trip would change his life in that he set a style and subject matter that remained with him for the rest of his life. Johnson enjoyed great success with his Field and Stream assignment and thus he continued to make many trips to the West including a 1912 visit to Arizona. On a trip to New Mexico, he was exposed to the Navajos and their threatened way of life. It was during this trip that the artist was transformed from an academic artist into a true western American artist. Frank Tenney Johnson also became a master at painting skies during the day and at night. In fact, painting night scenes would become one of Frank Tenney Johnson's trademarks. In order to achieve a certain luminosity, the artist extensively studied the skies in Maxfield Parish's paintings.

At one of Frank Tenney Johnson's exhibits at the Grand Central Art Galleries at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, Amon Carter bought the entire exhibition. This financial success allowed Frank Tenney Johnson the freedom to move to California in the 1920's and he settled in the city of Alhambra. There he shared an art studio with Clyde Forsythe and it was at this point in his career that his paintings began to outsell his illustrations. Frank Tenney Johnson painted a series of murals in a famous Los Angeles movie house called the Cathy Circle Theater. He employed a textural painting technique where he worked quickly, using brushes, palette knife and his fingers.

In the 1930s, Frank Tenney Johnson chose to spend his summers away from Alhambra and he built a cabin and painting studio on the north fork of the Shoshone River in Wyoming just outside of Yellowstone Park. From 1931 to 1938, he spent abundant time hiking in Yellowstone Park painting scenes of its spectacular landscapes.

At the peak of his career, tragedy was to strike Frank Tenney Johnson. One night in December of 1938, he attended a party and in the course of the evening kissed a woman. That night the artist contracted spinal meningitis and died the following day, January 1, 1939. The woman he kissed at the party died two weeks later from the same disease.

Frank Tenney Johnson Memberships

Allied Art Association
American Watercolor Society
California Art Club (President, 1935-1938)
Foundation of Western Artists
Highland Park Society of Artists
Laguna Beach Art Association
National Academy
National Arts Club
Painters of the West
Salmagundi Club
San Gabriel Art League

Frank Tenney Johnson biography portrait photo.