On November 25, 1910, Ellen Johnson was born in Warren, Pennsylvania, to Jacob Augustua and Hulda Jeanette (Hedlund) Johnson, immigrants from Sweden. Her father ran the Allegheny Hotel where she and her three older siblings grew up. Her connection to her Swedish heritage remained strong throughout her life. She later credits the beauty of Western Pennsylvania's Allegheny Valley with her interest in art.
Ellen Johnson was an intelligent woman who came well prepared for a college education. Her class rank in high school was 12th in a class of 136. She chose Oberlin College based on the recommendation of an adult friend who she knew through programs at the local YWCA. Beginning college in the depths of the "Great Depression," she nonetheless earned a degree of Bachelor of Arts (1933) and a Master of Arts (1935), both in Art History. Her M.A. thesis, "Modern Art and Its Traditional Aspects", written under the direction of Jessie Bryan Trefethan and Clarence Ward, provides some sense of her future sensitivity to contemporary art.
She did post-graduate work at the Sorbonne, Paris, in the summer of 1935, and again in 1951; Uppsala University in Sweden in 1946-47; the University of Stockholm, 1946-47, and again in 1951; and at Harvard University in the summer of 1941. However, Ellen Johnson did not earn a Doctorate until awarded one as an honorary degree from Oberlin College in 1981.
In 1936, Johnson went to work in the education department of the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio. In 1937, she moved within the Museum to become librarian and remained there until 1939. While in Toledo, she made her mark in publishing with a piece titled "In The Style of Praxiteles" for the Magazine of Art.
Ellen Johnson returned to Oberlin in 1939 as art librarian and began a career that would span 37 years. From 1939 until 1948 she was the art librarian at the College Library, where she organized the College's first film series and the Art Museum's first "Purchase Shows." The latter provided an opportunity for students, faculty, and the Oberlin community to purchase original works of art.
In 1940, Johnson organized a revolutionary program to bring art into the lives of students. She believed that "having good works of art in their own rooms would have a health-giving effect on their thinking and feeling." To this end she initiated the Art Rental Collection, started with $600 and a small number of reproductions. For a small rental fee (originally twenty five cents), students could have a replica of a world class work of art hanging in their dormitory or boarding house room for a semester. The program was the first of its kind in the United States. Art Rental, now over 350 items, includes only original works of art; some of these are gifts from artists in support of the concept. Johnson continued to work with it until just before her death. The program remains extremely popular even to this day. Students at Oberlin have been known, for example, to camp out in the dead of winter to secure their first choice of the works available for the second semester.
In the year after she arrived at Oberlin to be the art librarian, she was asked to accept a replacement appointment in the Fine Arts Department. Through this experience, she discovered her lifelong love of academic teaching; ultimately, she would become universally admired by her students and her peers for her ability to teach undergraduates. After her temporary teaching experience, but while still working full time as the art librarian, she received permission to teach - without pay - a non-credit course in contemporary art. The latter became a popular course and Johnson was asked to join the Fine Arts Department faculty in 1948. Here she joined Margaret Schauffler, Class of 1918, as one of the few women college professors at Oberlin. In 1953 she was granted tenure (even though she did not have a Ph.D.), and in 1964 she was named a full professor.
Johnson became a leading specialist in American and European contemporary art. She was in demand both at Oberlin and elsewhere as a visiting lecturer and professor. Among the courses she taught at Oberlin were 19th and 20th century art, the Museum course, American art from Colonial times, and Scandinavian art. At the time, the Scandinavian course was the only one of its kind in the country. She had four visiting professorships: the University of Wisconsin, 1950-51; University of Uppsala (Sweden), 1960; University of Sydney (Australia), 1977; and University of California at Santa Barbara, 1979. Johnson guest-lectured at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Courtauld Institute, the Tate Gallery, and at numerous colleges and universities.
Johnson's impact as a teacher has become the stuff of legends. Past students wrote and thanked her for the insights she imparted. Many of her students became art historians, critics, gallery owners, and museum curators. She believed everyone should have the opportunity to learn about art and resisted attempts to restrict the size of her classes. Her modern art courses became so popular that they had to be moved out of the Art Building and into Hall Auditorium. Even when her classes attracted over 400 students, she insisted upon reading each student's paper herself and commenting on every paper.
Ellen Johnson's principle service to Oberlin College was to make the Allen Memorial Art Museum world renowned. Even with her heavy teaching schedule and travels, she served on a number of committees during the 1950's and 1960's. These included the Committee on Graduate Studies, Student Aid, the Library, Teacher's Education, Audio-Visual Aids, and Museum Accessions. She also served on the Board of Advisors to Freshman and Sophomores. She was interested in campus politics, although she was not considered a "political animal" by her associates. She often voted with the minority.
In addition to her teaching, Johnson was an active writer, curator and collector of art.
Johnson authored nearly a hundred articles and essays. She had four articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica. She published three books: Cezanne (1967), Claes Oldenburg (1971), and edited American Artists on Art from 1940 to 1980 (1982). A collection of her essays was published in 1977, as Modern Art and the Object. In 1977, the Museum published a bibliography of Johnson's writings in the Bulletin of the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Fragments Recalled at Eighty: The Art Memoirs of Ellen H. Johnson was published posthumously by her friends in 1993.
Johnson reported that she thought her piece on the Allen Art Museum's Glass of Absinthe by Picasso to be her most important. This work engendered the article, "On the Role of the Object in Analytical Cubism," [Allen Memorial Art Bulletin, XIII, 1955, pp. 11-25]. The article was the first analysis and actual identification of objects in a Cubist painting.
She had many requests from around the world to curate shows. Unfortunately, her schedule did not permit her to accept many of these offers. Among her best known large shows were the Three Young Americans biennial exhibitions in 1963, 1965, and 1968. She was the U.S. Delegate to the New Delhi Triennial in 1968, where she curated the exhibit and wrote the catalog. In 1982, she organized a major retrospective show of Eva Hesse's drawings, which toured nationally.
Johnson also helped organize numerous other shows at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. So valued was her contribution in forming the post-War collection, serving on its Purchase Committee, and assisting in exhibitions and fundraising, that she was named Honorary Curator of Modern Art in 1973.
Her personal art collection contained more than 300 objects. Many of the works were gifts from contemporary artists with whom she had developed a friendship through her writing and teaching. Some of the works were displayed in the Frank Lloyd Wright house (built in 1950), which she purchased in 1968 and lovingly restored. She arranged for the house to become the guest house for the Department of Art and the Museum upon her death. Two weeks before her death, on March 6, 1992, the Allen Memorial Art Museum opened an exhibition entitled The Living Object. The show displayed half of the over 300 works she bequeathed to the Museum.
The significance of Ellen Johnson's achievements is widely recognized. For example, Newsweek [June 6, 1977, pp. 90-91] featured her among seven other college professors who were chosen as examples of the best in their profession. Additionally, her professional activities over 38 years put Oberlin in the front of American contemporary art. In 1975, an article in Art in America noted, "in no other college has the positive interaction between new work, artists and audience been felt more deeply that at Oberlin in Ohio."
In 1982, she received from Oberlin an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts. She was a Fulbright scholar (year?) and a Guggenheim fellow (1976). She received honors or study fellowships from: the American-Scandinavian Foundation (1960), the American Council of Learned Societies (1961), twice by the National Endowment for the Humanities (1973-74 and ?), the Institute of Architects, and the Women's Caucus for Art. In 1978, she received the first Distinguished Teaching of Art History award from the College Art Association of America. Oberlin College awarded her the Alumni Medal, posthumously, in 1993.
During her life, Johnson was a world traveler. She made many trips to art centers such as New York City and Paris. She was always attracted to nature and enjoyed trips which included opportunities to hike and snorkel. She photographed all she saw for lectures and personal memories.
Her retirement from Oberlin, in June of 1977, was celebrated by announcing a multi-million dollar expansion of the Allen Memorial Art Museum and Department of Art, an expansion that was to include "The Ellen Johnson Gallery of Modern Art." To help fund the Gallery, a benefit auction was held at Sotheby's in New York. It included works donated by many major artists in honor of Johnson. The catalog, it is said, read like a "Who's Who in Contemporary Art." In addition to the money raised, numerous important works were donated to the Museum in tribute to Johnson.
Upon her death on March 25, 1992, Ellen Johnson had made major contributions to the field of contemporary art, made Oberlin's Art Museum one of the best in the country, and influenced countless students through her dynamic teaching. Following her death, the bulk of her papers were transferred to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution with a collection of 4 linear feet coming to the Oberlin Archives.