Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Warren, Warren County
Despite beginning her college education during the Great Depression, Johnson went on to earn a degree and become a prominent art historian.
Art educator Ellen Hulda Johnson was born in Warren County in 1910. After taking degrees in art at Oberlin College, she studied abroad in Paris and Uppsala. She returned to Oberlin to work in and eventually become a faculty member in that school’s art museum. She wrote several texts on artists as well as numerous articles. Johnson died in 1992.
Ellen Hulda Elizabeth Johnson was born on November 25, 1910, in Warren, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of Jacob August and Hulda Johnson. After graduating from high school, Johnson enrolled at Oberlin College, earning her B.A. in 1933, and her M.A. 1935. She continued her art education abroad, studying at the Sorbonne at the University of Paris and at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Upon her return to the United States, she held a position at the Toledo Museum of Art, but the call of her alma mater, Oberlin, brought her back to that campus in 1938 as a part-time instructor.
From that relatively low position, Johnson would eventually become “a powerful force in the promotion of contemporary art,” as the New York Times obituary phrased it. Much of that power came from her early recognition of the talents of such artists as Claes Oldenburg, Larry Poons and Bruce Nauman. Her championing of Oldenburg in particular was fruitful: she commissioned his first site-specific sculpture and she would eventually write a book about him (1971’s Claes Oldenburg). Her work and her reputation enhanced the prestige of Oberlin immensely and she influenced many students through her popular course in modern art. In 1978, the College Art Association of America honored Johnson with their Distinguished Teaching of Art History Award. This award is given to teachers of art history who demonstrate “inspiration to a broad range of students in the pursuit of humanistic studies; rigorous intellectual standards and outstanding success in both scholarly and class presentation; contribution to the advancement of knowledge and methodology in the discipline, including integration of art historical knowledge with other disciplines; and aid to students in the development of their careers.” Johnson clearly exemplified those qualities in the Oberlin community as well. The institution granted her an honorary doctorate in 1982 and named a gallery in her honor in the Allen Museum of American Art that would house her personal collection of art, including her Cezannes.
Ellen H. Johnson passed away from cancer on March 23, 1992, in Oberlin, OH. Her memoirs were published posthumously.
Cezanne. Paulton, UK: Purnell & Sons, 1967.
Claes Oldenburg. Baltimore: Penguin, 1971.
Modern Art and the Object: A Century of Changing Attitudes. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
(Editor) American Artists on Art from 1940 to 1980. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.
Eva Hesse: A Retrospective of the Drawings. Oberlin, OH: Allen Art Museum, Oberlin College, 1982.
Fragments Recalled at Eighty: The Art Memoirs of Ellen H. Johnson. Ed. Athena Tacha. North Vancouver, BC: Gallerie Publications, 1993.