Encounter: John Tenney Johnson, Master of the Nocturne



“Down the Moonlit Trail,” 1938. Oil on board.
Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming, USA. 

I’ve always been an admirer of nocturnes.  Although some artists paint them at night, many paint them in the studio, working from memory or sketches done on-site.  The ones done in the studio tend to “read” better, since the artist wasn’t sacrificing craft by struggling under a portable lamp in the dark.  There are many good painters of nocturnes alive today, but for me, the ideal is a historic painter, John Tenney Johnson (1874-1939.)

Frank Tenney Johnson

I’ve been reading a biography of Johnson.  The Frank Tenney Johnson Book by Harold McCracken (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974) is a large volume filled with extracts from Johnson’s letters to his wife, Vinnie.  In the early 1900s, although married and working in New York as an illustrator for Field & Stream, Johnson led a peripatetic life consisting of cowpunching, roundups and rodeos, all the while painting and sketching and shooting hundreds of rolls of film.  (Kodak had come out with a line of consumer cameras by this time.)  While traveling, he sent lengthy letters (as well as many rolls of film and sketches) back home.  These letters give us a good look at his travels in Colorado, New Mexico and beyond, and how he gathered his reference material for the studio.

Here’s an excerpt from one letter:

In the morning, I saw an emigrant outfit that stopped in town for supplies.  I rode out to the west ahead of it and when they came along I made some photos.  I think they are a valuable addition to those I have already sent back to you to develop.  Let me know how they turn out.  I’ll keep getting photos of things that will add to the sketches I make and will help to make up fine pictures.  My photos are going to be the most value to  me.  But the first thing to do to get real good pictures of cowboys is to get right out where they are working and be on the right side of them.  Incidentally, I’m about strapped—only 50 cts left.  I’m saving that for a rainy day.

Reference photo shot by Frank Tenney Johnson

Although the train west was paid by his editor, on the promise that Johnson would reimburse him on his return, Johnson was responsible for buying horse tack, meals and lodging, and of course, film and art supplies.  Every letter from him to Vinnie seems to include a plea for another money order to be sent.

One interesting thing about Johnson’s nocturnes, especially the moonlit scenes.  They don’t present the muted, almost-grey colors that one sees in an actual moonlit scene.  The foregrounds and clothing often have very rich color, almost as if lit by a spotlight rather than a full moon.

You can see more nocturnes by Johnson at this link.—
Michael Chesley Johnson, AIS PSA MPAC PSNM
www.MChesleyJohnson.com

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