Born in Boston, Johnson later went to Lowell Institute becoming a member of the Boston Art Club also associating with Copley School. At eighteen he sailed on South America-bound SUNBEAM but his ship burned at sea, although he and eleven others were rescued.
He also studied under William Edward Norton, the influential American artist who placed atmosphere and the spiritual aspects of a painting as among the most important priorities of the artist. To further his art in 1887 he traveled to Europe studying in Holland, France and England. Upon his return he maintained a studio in old Boston's India Wharf until his death in 1921.