The compressed space in Self-Portrait speaks to Johnson’s profound awareness of modernist compositional devices. The easel at the left side of the canvas identifies him as an artist, and the masks in the background make an assertive statement about his African American heritage. In 1934, the year he painted his self-portrait, Johnson joined the ranks of the Public Works of Art Project, the first of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal art programs, which paid artists a monthly stipend. Although the job lasted only six months, Johnson was finally able to paint full time. Ironically, the year proved to be Johnson’s most prolific but also the last of his short life.


  • Title: Self-Portrait
  • Creator: Malvin Gray Johnson
  • Date Created: 1934
  • Physical Dimensions: 38 1/4 x 30 in. (97.2 x 72.2 cm)
  • Credit Line: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation
  • Artist: Born Greensboro, NC 1896 – Died New York City 1934
  • Medium: oil on canvas

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