Crockett Johnson

Crockett Johnson
Born David Johnson Leisk
(1906-10-20)October 20, 1906
New York City, United States
Died July 11, 1975(1975-07-11) (aged 68)
Nationality American
Area(s) Cartoonist
Notable works
Barnaby, Harold and the Purple Crayon

Crockett Johnson (October 20, 1906 – July 11, 1975) was the pen name of the American cartoonist and children's book illustrator David Johnson Leisk. He is best known for the comic strip Barnaby (1942–1952) and the Harold series of books begun with Harold and the Purple Crayon.

From 1965 until his death Johnson created over a hundred paintings relating to mathematics and mathematical physics. Eighty of these are found in the collections of the National Museum of American History.[1]


Born in New York City, Johnson grew up in Elmhurst, Queens, studying art at Cooper Union in 1924, and at New York University in 1925.[2] He explained his choice of pseudonym as follows: "Crockett is my childhood nickname. My real name is David Johnson Leisk. Leisk was too hard to pronounce -- so -- I am now Crockett Johnson!"[2]

By the late 1920s, Johnson was art editor at several McGraw-Hill trade publications. With the Great Depression, Johnson became politicized and turned leftward, joining the radical Book and Magazine Writers Union. In 1934, he began his cartooning career by contributing to the Communist Party publication New Masses and subsequently joined the publication's staff, becoming its art editor and redesigning the magazine's layout. He remained with the magazine until 1940 and embarked on a career drawing comic strips in a series in Collier's magazine named "The Little Man with the Eyes". In 1942, he developed the Barnaby strip which would make him famous for the left-wing daily newspaper PM.[3] The children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon was published in 1955.

He died of lung cancer in 1975.[2]

Children's books

Johnson also collaborated on four children's books with his wife, Ruth Krauss. The books were: The Carrot Seed, How to Make an Earthquake, Is This You?, and The Happy Egg.

The books Harold and the Purple Crayon, Harold's Fairy Tale, and A Picture for Harold's Room have been adapted for animation by Gene Deitch.

Mathematical Paintings

"Polar Line of a Point and a Circle (Apollonius)"

Johnson created his series of more than 100 mathematical paintings inspired by geometric principles and mathematicians. He painted layered geometric shapes in the paintings, based on classic mathematical theorems and diagrams in James Newman’s The World of Mathematics as well as other mathematics books. Later, he began to construct using his own inventions.[4] Most of Johnson's abstract images are painted with house paint on the rough side of a two-by-three foot piece of masonite, save those he enlarged to four-by-four, he explained in a letter.[5]

Johnson made an effort to differentiate his paintings from contemporary art in that his are based on the mathematics of geometry, not solely the shapes. In his 1971 article titled "Geometric Geometric Painting," published in Leonardo, Johnson describes this type of geometric painting as using shapes and lines to experiment with color and optic illusion for decoration, the evocation of emotion, representation of ancient symbols or other purposes unrelated to geometry.[6]


The Barnaby #1 to #6 books, published in paperback by Ballantine Books under the Del Rey imprint in 1985, were compilations of the first few years of the comic strip. Additional books were supposed to appear, but publication was suspended upon the death of Judy Lynn Del Rey. In 2013, Fantagraphics began republishing Barnaby. The five-volume collection, featuring all ten years of Barnaby, is expected to be complete in 2018.

A 1946 play, "Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley", was based on the comic strip. It played in several East Coast cities, attracting attention mainly for a scene in which O'Malley flew over the audience throwing out leaflets urging support for his Congressional race. Johnson said the child cast as Barnaby looked more like the cartoon Barnaby than any real child he ever expected to see, Producer—Barney Josephson; Script--Jerome Chodorov; O'Malley--J. M. Kerrigan; Barnaby--Thomas Wm. Hamilton; Jane—Iris Mann; McSnoyd--Royal Dano


Further reading

All by Philip Nel

External links

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