William Johnson was born in lay in Florence, South Carolina. He was inspired to be an artist at an early age, despite of his poverty and lack of education. At the age of seventeen, he went to New York and worked at various jobs to pay for his training at the National Academy of Design. In l942, he went to Paris to study after winning a number of prizes in art shows.
He lived abroad for twelve years in France, Scandinavia, and North Africa and married Danish weaver Holca Krake. With the outbreak of World War II, Johnson returned to the United States where he became well-known for his bright, bold paintings of African-Americans. He died in l970.