Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Henry L. Milmore
It is not always possible to identify the sitter in a miniature portrait, and research is still being done on some of the works in the Museum’s collection. Miniatures became popular in England during the early 1700s, commissioned by wealthy families on the occasions of births, engagements, weddings, and bereavements. These paintings, elaborately set into lockets or brooches, provided the wearer with a sentimental connection to a loved one. The back of the miniature often revealed a lock of the sitter’s hair, symbolizing affection, commitment, or loss. The daguerreotype, invented in 1839, provided a cheaper, faster alternative, and portrait miniatures grew less popular. At the turn of the twentieth century, with the establishment of the American Society of Miniature Painters, miniatures enjoyed a brief revival.
William H. Johnson, born Florence, SC 1901-died Central Islip, NY 1970
oil on plywood
37 3/4 x 49 1/4 in. (95.9 x 125.1 cm.)
History\United States\World War II
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Pearl Harbor inspired two government-sponsored art exhibitions in 1942, for which William H. Johnson painted scenes of African Americans involved in the war effort. Soldiers Training contrasts the patriotism of black enlistees with the military’s segregationist policies. Black soldiers served in their own units, “black” blood was kept separate from “white,” and recruits took on the most menial jobs at Army bases and aboard ships. Johnson may have painted this scene based on reports of the “Buffalo Soldiers” who were training at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Set in a desolate camp ringed by mountains, Soldiers Training suggests the isolation that black soldiers experienced among hundreds of thousands of men and women committed to winning the war.