Painting of two dancers doing the Jitterbug

How Do Artists Capture Dance in 2-D Art?

Dance is often an art form which can be ephemeral and fleeting, performed and seen in a particular moment. The artists in Rhythm & Roots: Dance in American Art have deftly captured the energy, rhythm, and emotion of dancing, using the elements and principles of art as a language to communicate.

In the case of the Jitterbugs (II), on view in Rhythm & Roots, William H. Johnson plays with color, form, and pattern to help us feel the joyful spontaneity of dancing together.

While teaching art at the Work Projects Administration’s (WPA) Harlem Community Art Center, Johnson created a dynamic series of paintings and screen prints (completed about 1940–42) illustrating many dance types, including four of the jitterbug. The jitterbug, a popular dance developed in Harlem with “swing” culture, quickly spread throughout the country before WWII. His art focused on dancers and musicians underscored their essential role in Harlem life.

My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually.

– William H. Johnson, artist

Color – Johnson’s use of color is bold and alive. The bright yellow, red, orange, blue, and green express the exuberance of dancing to the vibrant jazz music of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Cab Calloway in the nightclubs of Harlem.

Form and composition – Johnson reduces the forms of the dancers’ bodies to their essences, the exaggerated poses with a sparse background becoming the emphasis of the painting. The stylized body movements and sharp angles captured a dynamic energy, creating a mood where you can almost hear Louis Armstrong’s piercing trumpet or Chick Webb and his orchestra’s fast-tempo beat begging dancers to jump, flip, swing, and shake.

Pattern – Johnson also simplifies yet accentuates the patterns, further emphasizing the imagined brisk-tempo rhythms being played and danced.

One of our gifted docents, Arthurenia Hawkins who taught art at Broomfield Heights Middle School for many years, used Johnson’s Jitterbugs (II) as a powerful inspiration for her students. Arthurenia said, “It was such a pleasure to excite kids about the elements of art with such a fun piece." Here are a few inspiring views from her middle school students about this artwork:

  • “We can feel the joy of dancing because of their smiles.”
  • “They must be dancing fast because we cannot see his other leg. It must be in the air.”
  • “The warm colors, especially the yellow, make me want to dance.”

Image credit: William H. Johnson (American, 1901-1970), Jitterbugs (II), about 1941. Oil on paperboard; 24 x 15 3/8 in. (61 x 39.1 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.611

Ann Lambson is the interpretive specialist for architecture, design, and graphics in the learning and engagement department at the Denver Art Museum. She has been with the DAM since 2015.

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