Walk into the main gallery of artist Gari Melchers' studio, and you'll get a feast for the eyes.

All around you is a kaleidoscope of color, leaping off vibrant and powerful canvases that don't seem to be painted by the same artist.

But they were.

That breadth of style is your first hint of the incredible range and talent of the artist, William H. Johnson, featured in Belmont's new autumn exhibition.

And what you see here, as wonderful as it is, is only a tiny fraction of the output of this major global artist. His works numbered in the thousands and ran the gamut in style from Old World master to impressionist to modernist and post-modernist.

"Boy, could he paint!" Joanna Catron, curator at the Gari Melchers Home and Studio, says of Johnson.

But if you hadn't heard of Johnson until now, that's understandable. An African-American, he was most active between 1926 and 1946, and his work had largely disappeared from view until recently.

"Because of the work of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, with a couple of retrospectives and three catalogues of his works, he's getting to be much better known," Catron said.

"And if you don't know the name of William Johnson, you probably know of Jacob Lawrence. They and Romare Bearden are the best-known African-American artists right now."

Fredericksburg-area residents who get to see "William H. Johnson: An American Modern" will be fortunate indeed, as exhibitions of his rare and fragile art are too few.

Belmont is the first institution in the nation to host this exhibit developed by Morgan State University and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, which will continue on a 10-city tour through 2014.

The debut show communicates to the viewer straight off that he is enjoying the work of a wizard. Twenty landscapes, portraits and still lifes define the artist's aesthetic.

The earlier paintings are thick with gorgeous swirls of paint reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and the expressionist Chaim Soutine.

The landscape "Boats at Kerteminde" pulls you right into the scenic harbor of this fishing village on Denmark's eastern coast.

"Dutch Youth, 1930" carries faint echoes of the tortured-looking self-portraits by Van Gogh.

And the wildly tilting architecture of "In Cagnes White Houses," a scene from Cagnes-sur-Mer in the south of France, is practically claustrophobic.

The show's true treasures, though, are in the smaller, adjacent gallery. Here you'll find paintings in the personal style that Johnson worked for decades to find.

Some evoke feelings that one might get from works by his younger contemporary, Jacob Lawrence. But the paintings are all Johnson's own, the culmination of a difficult life spent searching for artistic definition.

Johnson explained it thus: "My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually, all that which in time has been saved up in my family of primitiveness and tradition, and which is now concentrated in me."

Considered a seminal figure in modern American art, Johnson (1901-70) was expert in a host of media and techniques.

He made it all look good, and his enormously productive career spanned genres and continents.

Johnson started out in Florence, S.C., leaving at age 17 to study at the National Academy of Design in New York. Upon graduation, he traveled to France for more study, soaked up the work of European artists and began to develop his own vision.

After three years he returned to New York at the height of the Great Depression. With no work to be found, Johnson moved to rural Denmark and married Holcha Krake, a Danish textile artist.

They exhibited together, and toured Europe, Scandinavia and North Africa, then came to New York in 1938.

That's when Johnson shifted gears, tapping Harlem's buoyant street life and memories of his Deep South boyhood for inspiration.

But success was fleeting.

Krake died in 1944, sending Johnson's mental health into a downward spiral. He became homeless, toting his rolled-up canvases from place to place. Johnson spent his final 23 years in a state hospital on Long Island.

Yet, through his art, Johnson's life is triumphant. It celebrates the richness of human creativity, the beauty of the land, and the worth and dignity of people.

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

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