Raymond Jonson was born on an Iowa farm in 1891. In 1902, his family moved to Portland, Oregon where young Raymond worked as a newspaper carrier for three local newspapers and developed an interest in editorial cartoons. This led Jonson to enroll in the new art school of the Portland Art Museum in 1909, moving on to Chicago to study illustration at the Academy of the Fine Arts in 1910. Jonson quickly discovered his interest was in fine art and began to attend classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Raymond Jonson met B.J.O. Nordfeldt in 1912 when he acquired a studio with fellow artists J. Branding Sloan and Carl Oskar Erickson across the street from Nordfeldt. Nordfeldt made a great impression on Jonson and the two had a long and important friendship. It was Nordfeldt who sent Jonson to the Chicago Little Theatre where Jonson spent five years working as the stage designer, stage manager, stage carpenter, scene painter and even sometimes as an actor. This period at the Chicago Little Theatre matured Jonson's art practices and sparked his creativity. There Jonson also met his wife Vera White, the secretary for the theater group, whom he married in 1916.
In 1913 the Armory Show traveled to Chicago and had a major impact on Jonson when he saw the work of Wassily Kandinsky for the first time. This year also marked the beginning of Jonson exhibiting at the Art Institute of Chicago in their American Paintings and Sculpture or Artists of Chicago annual exhibitions, where he continued to exhibit through 1923. In 1919 Jonson was selected to go to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. The experience of working around other artists, poets, and authors was so successful that Jonson returned the following summer for two months as well.
Jonson made his first sketching trip out West with fellow artist J. Blanding Sloan the summer of 1914. The pair traveled to Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. Jonson first visited the Colorado Rockies in 1917. One of his first Western paintings, Light, 1917, was purchased by the poet John Curtis Wood in 1925 and presented to the Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe. In 1917 Jonson also has his first one-man exhibition at the University of Wisconsin in Madison of thirty-one paintings and drawings and thirty-five designs for theater. Jonson toured with the Chicago Little Theatre group through Wyoming, Utah and Idaho for several months and remained after the group departed to paint in Utah and Estes Park, Colorado.
Once again, Jonson returned to the West to spend a summer in Santa Fe in 1922, returning to Chicago in the fall with fifty finished works. Jonson sold these works to raise funds to build a studio and house in New Mexico. The Santa Fe studio and house were completed in 1925. Once settled in New Mexico, Jonson became interested in conveying his emotional response to the landscape so that his painting became "an expression of sensation, rather than as a reflection of environmental appearances." Jonson's first series of works completed in his New Mexico studio were entitled Earth Rhythms, as the landscape continued to inspire Jonson during his shift to abstraction. Jonson's work became fully abstract by the mid-Twenties.
In 1927 a group of artists centered in Santa Fe started exhibiting as the Six Men Group, which was made up of Andrew Dasburg, B.J.O. Nordfeldt, Joseph G. Bakos, Willard Nash, John E. Thompson, and Raymond Jonson. The group had a permanent exhibition space at the Museum of New Mexico and exhibition tour along the West Coast and Arizona. In 1928 Jonson has a one-man exhibition of forty works at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the University of Oklahoma's Museum of Art, as well as nine drawings and two watercolors in the "Southwest" exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco. In 1931 Jonson had his first New York one-man exhibition at Delphic Studios. Jonson traveled to New York for the show and on to Chicago. In 1932 and 1933, Jonson returned to both cities for exhibitions in which he participated.
During the Great Depression Jonson's abstraction did not fit the popular style of Regionalism, but he did one project for the Public Works Art Project and a second for its successor, the Works Progress Administration. The first project was in 1933 at the University of New Mexico where Raymond Jonson and Willard Nash completed six large panels called A Cycle of Science for the walls of the University's library. The second commission was a pair of works, Art and Science, each 60 x 90 inches, installed at the Eastern New Mexico University in Portales in 1936.
With the formation of the Transcendental Painting Group in 1938, Raymond Jonson found in the other members, Bill Lumpkins, Emil Bisttram, Robert Gribbroek, Lawren Harris, Florence Miller (Pierce), Agnes Pelton, H. Towner Pierce, and Stuart Walker, like-minded artists pursuing non-representational painting. Jonson was the chairman of the group. Ed Garman, who later became Jonson's biographer, joined the group in 1941. In 1938 Jonson began to use an airbrush which allowed him to achieve a luminous quality of color in a spatter effect without the time-consuming practice of applying single dots. In the same year, he stopped titling his paintings, using a system of medium-number-year instead. As Ed Garman said, "his airbrush paintings in this period of American art … represent a unique contribution of a modern mechanical device and an extraordinary inventive imagination." The airbrush opened the way for new improvisations. In 1939, the Transcendental Painting Group was recognized by an invitation to exhibit at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, as well as at the Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, and the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. In 1940 the Group exhibited at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York (now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum). After that culminating exhibition, the Group disbanded in 1941 and Jonson resumed his individual exhibition schedule.
Raymond Jonson took the position of part-time instructor at the University of New Mexico in 1934, commuting once a week from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. He became a full professor in 1949 and relocated to Albuquerque. In 1950 the University of New Mexico built the Jonson Gallery which acted as Jonson's private residence, his studio, and a teaching gallery. By donating his own art and his personal collection of art, Raymond Jonson provided the University with its first art museum and a good representation of modern American art. Jonson retired from his professorship in 1954 to spend more time in painting and informally teaching in the Jonson Gallery. Today the Jonson Gallery continues to function as an exhibition space for art annuals for new artists and solo exhibitions of established New Mexico artists.
Raymond Jonson maintained an active exhibition schedule through the remainder of his life. He had one-man shows in New Mexico and California in 1950s and participated in group exhibitions nationally. The University of New Mexico had six one-man shows of Jonson's work from 1941 to 1974, including a three-part retrospective of Jonson's career (1913-1974). Jonson's work was also frequently exhibited at the Roswell Museum and Art Center.
Jonson's work is included in many public art collections throughout the nation, including the Los Angeles County Museum, the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.