Born June 26, 1874 on a small southwestern Iowa farm, Frank Tenney Johnson grew up with dreams of the distant West. Struggling to keep the farm running after the death of his mother, Frank and his family sold their homestead and left for Milwaukee in December 1888. Living in the city was a radical change for the young prairie boy who was exposed to a whole new world after a school visit to the Layton Art Gallery. Inspired to learn how to draw and paint, Frank dedicated the rest of his time to becoming an artist, even going so far as to drop out of high school during his second year. He paid for art classes with professional water colorist F. W. Heine, who kept Frank on as an apprentice for a short while. Frank started taking lessons with Milwaukee artist and former Texas Ranger, Richard Lorenz, whose paintings of Western life appealed to the young student’s senses. For income, Frank held various free-lance jobs with Milwaukee engraving and commercial companies, as well as the city newspapers, all of which afforded him the time to take several trips down to South Dakota where he studied and sketched the native tribes he encountered.
Eager for more instruction, in 1895, Frank traveled to New York. During his five months there, he attended classes at the Art Students League under the instruction of the distinguished American landscape painter John Henry Twachtman. At the encouragement of his new wife, Vinnie Reeve Francis, the new couple settled in NYC in 1902. While Vinnie found a job as a secretary, Frank found free-lance work and joined the classes of Robert Henri and William Merrit Chase, both highly-regarded painters, at the New York School of Art. After becoming friends with Emerson Hough, the editor of Field & Stream, Frank made a five month trip West, at the magazine’s expense in exchange for illustrations. The artist spent time with a cattle outfit in Colorado and then traveled down to New Mexico to immerse himself in the world of Navajos, painting, photographing, and sketching all the while. From 1904 onward, Frank was travelling repeatedly to the Southwest and the Rocky Mountains, with his wife Vinnie eventually accompanying him on these journeys.
While working in New York City, from 1903-1925, the artist supported his art through several relationships with New York publications, illustrating for popular periodicals such as Field & Stream, Cosmopolitan, Century, Harper’s Monthly, Harper’s Weekly, Metropolitan Magazine, and Scribner’s. Frank also illustrated books by Western writers: Zane Grey, George Bird Grinnell, B. M. Bower, A. M. Chisholm, and Edgar Beecher Bronson. By 1925, the artist abandoned his illustrative work in order to focus on his career as a fine artist and became tenacious in his efforts to exhibit his work.
That same year, with the growing interest in European art among the New York art dealers and his fascination with the West, Frank bought a home in Alhambra, California while maintaining a residence in New York. Already established among East Coast circles, the artist involved himself in the Los Angeles burgeoning art culture, joining several art associations. Frank’s career continued to blossom and gained prestige with the designated honor of Academician in 1937 at the National Academy of Design.Founding the Painters of the West, a California group of artists, Frank was tireless in his commitment to promote Western art and representative painters. Whether romanticized or nostalgic in his vision, the artist remained true to realism. His paintings are distinguished by superb draftsmanship, painterly brushwork, and a fascination with outdoor light. Although he often generalizes the details of his landscapes with broad brush strokes, Frank provides a realistic impression of each scene. Much of his work reflects his interest in twilight and night light. Like Remington, Frank Tenney Johnson earned much of his reputation as a fine artist from his nocturnes, painting night scenes throughout his thirty-five year career, which ended on January 1, 1939, from spinal meningitis.