Frank Tenney Johnson's paintings of the American West stand out as some of the most accomplished intimate portraits of the most unique region of the United States. Born in rural Iowa, Johnson grew up with a disposition for art while witnessing the great American westward expansion that occured throughout his childhood. This firsthand experience of the West proved to be influential for the rest of his career. With some formal art training in Milwaukee and New York, Johnson pursued a career as an magazine illustrator. A commission from Field and Stream gave his work such exposure and popularity that Johnson's easel paintings became so popular that he was able to quit illustrating in favor of pursuing a career in the fine arts.
Johnson never strayed from the subject matter that made his work popular, and he continued painting scenes of the great American West until the end of his life. In Beginning of a Lonely Night, Johnson poignantly captures a moment in the real life of a cowboy. Sitting alone next to his campfire, the cowboy settles in for a long, solitary night on the range. Rather than focusing on the animated and high-spirited points of a cowboy's routine, Johnson has chosen to convey the peace and solitude of life on the range. Except for his cattle, the cowboy is likely to be the only living thing for many miles, which might take days to cover on foot. In harmony with the peaceful mood of the painting is the dark, yet vibrant night sky that envelops the cowboy. Johnson has become very well known for his depictions of the evening sky, in its various deep shades of blue. "In order to properly render the luminosity of a night sky, he pored over those of Maxfield Parrish, whose depictions of the phenomenon were famous. Johnson developed a special underpainting to give his night skies the quality of light which he so admired in nature. His technique demanded that he work quickly but not at the risk of losing composition. His draughtsmanship is sure but never hard. His backgrounds are generally dark and the central figures painted in light tones to allow them to stand out clearly. His paintings are more philosophical and, therefore, more believable those of many of his contemporaries." (E. Cunningham, Masterpieces of the American West, Selections from the Anschutz Collection, Denver, Colorado, 1983, np)