Frank Tenney Johnson was born in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, on his family’s farm along the old Overland Trail near a town then called Big Grove and now known as Oakland. He observed the western migration of people on horseback and in stage coaches and covered wagons. This exposure to the American West would become an important influence and inspiration for him as an artist. By 1888, the family had moved to Milwaukee and by 1893 he enrolled in the Milwaukee School of Art, where he studied with, Richard Lorenz, who was a member of the Society of Western Painters. In 1895, he moved to New York City where he continued his studies under John Henry Twachtman at the Art Students League of New York. Frank Johnson moved back to Milwaukee and worked as an illustrator for a while. Illustrating for articles and magazines would provide the financial assistance he needed to create his art for many years during his career. Returning to New York, he studied with John Twachtman, Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase who would also have a strong influence on his work.
Frank Tenney Johnson was hired by Field and Stream magazine in 1904 to travel and illustrate the life of the cattlemen in Colorado and New Mexico. This trip would change his life in that he found a subject matter that would continue to inspire him for the rest of his life. Frank Tenney Johnson enjoyed great success with his Field and Stream assignments and on a trip to New Mexico he was exposed to the Navajos Indians. In addition to Field & Stream, he also contributed to Cosmopolitan and Harpers Weekly magazines. From this point, his work transformed from an academic style into true western art. Johnson became a master at painting skies during the day and at night. Painting the effects of moonlight on form and color would become one of Johnson’s trademarks and would be referred to as “The Johnson Moonlight Technique”. Johnson applied a chalk-white base to his canvases, mixed with a small quantity of vermillion or Spanish red. He would complete the under-painting, and then put his canvases aside for a period of a year or more. This unusual approach was said to account for the depth and luminosity of Johnson’s finished works.
Johnson made several more trips west working on illustrating the Western novels of Zane Grey, which he worked on for fifteen years. He observed, photographed and sketched cowboy life, while working as an illustrator of Zane Grey’s novels about the West. He gained valuable experience by working with the riders, participating in the area roundups and listening to stories of the Old West. Johnson eventually moved to California in the 1920’s and he settled in the city of Alhambra. It was at this point in his career that his paintings began to outsell his illustrations and he was able to focus his creativity on painting. While living in California, Frank Tenney Johnson painted a series of murals for the Cathy Circle Theater. He used a textural technique applying paint using brushes, palette knife and his fingers. He exhibited his work and continued to travel the American west while based in California.
In the 1930s, Frank Tenney Johnson built a cabin and painting studio on the north fork of the Shoshone River in Wyoming just outside of Yellowstone Park. From 1931 to 1938, he painted scenes from inside the park and its inspiring landscapes.
Frank Tenney Johnson contracted spinal meningitis and he died January 1, 1939. “It has been my ambitious desire to record on canvas authentically and with fidelity those events and picturesque phases of life which have given us our romantic western background.”