Early Morning Work presents a clear narrative: the day’s chores must be done. But the scene is more than a reminiscence of farm life. It affirms the idea that Southern blacks maintained connections with the cultural heritage of Africa. Though seemingly primitive, the flattened forms and deliberately naïve perspective Johnson used were informed by years of artistic discipline. The man’s profile is a beautifully rendered drawing of an African mask. Hands and mule hoofs are disproportionately large, while the horizontal stripes offer a visual cadence punctuated by the circular forms of a wheel and chickens pecking at the ground.


  • Title: Early Morning Work
  • Creator: William H. Johnson
  • Date Created: About 1940
  • Physical Dimensions: 38 1/2 x 45 5/8 in. (97.8 x 115.9 cm)
  • Credit Line: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation
  • Artist: Born Florence, SC 1901 – Died Central Islip, NY 1970
  • Medium: oil on burlap

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