Provenance: the artist, New York; purchased by John Wilson Lamb, 1929; thence by descent to the current owner.
Exhibited: Negro Art, The Harmon Foundation, New York, 1929; traveling exhibition to 11 U.S. cities, February - August 1929; Climbing Up the Mountain: The Modern Art of Malvin Gray Johnson, North Carolina Central University Museum, Durham, NC, Februrary 8 - April, 19, 2002; Challenge of the Modern: African-American Artists 1925-1945, Volume I, The Studio Museum in Harlem, January 23 - March 30, 2003, with the exhibition label on the frame back. Climbing Up the Mountain: The Modern Art of Malvin Gray Johnson was the first retrospective for the artist and the first time this newly re-discovered painting had been shown in over 60 years.
Illustrated: Art Digest; The Washington Post; Climbing Up the Mountain: The Modern Art of Malvin Gray Johnson, North Carolina Central University Museum, Durham, NC, p. 58; Challenge of the Modern: African-American Artists 1925-1945, Volume I, The Studio Museum in Harlem, p. 106, pl. 43.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is not only Malvin Gray Johnson's best known work, but is also a very important painting in the history of African-American visual art at the beginning of the 20th century. This is also his first painting to come to auction. Largely due to his sudden death at the age of 38, his works are extremely scarce--his 2002 retrospective located 60 paintings and drawings. Johnson's Swing Low, Sweet Chariot became one of the first modern paintings to be recorded in the canon of African-American art and culture. It launched his career, and placed him alongside Aaron Douglas and Henry Ossawa Tanner as one of the great African-American painters at that time. According to Mary Ann Calo, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was "widely celebrated as evidence of the black artist's potential to make a distinctive contribution to American culture" with "near ecstatic" critical response. The monthly Art Digest described the painting "as a significant art world event...worthy of the highest traditions in American painting," and compared its mystical and spiritual themes to Albert P. Ryder. The evident influences of Tanner and the Renaissance were generally overlooked due to the resonance of the painting's emotional and spiritual subject. This painting visually portrays African-American spirituals as popularized by such performers as Paul Robeson and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Johnson himself best describes his intentions in the January 1929 Art Digest article:
"I have tried to show the escape of emotions which the plantation slaves felt after being held down all day by the grind of labor and the consciousness of being bound. Set free from their tasks by the end of the day and the darkness they have gone from their cabin to the river's edge and are calling upon their God for the freedom which they long." Calo pp 140-41; Francis pp. 57-63.