The subject’s head in this portrait by John Wilson has a propulsive, angular power (everything juts out of the panel on which it is placed) and at the same time a simple, effortless delicacy. Therefore, it is not surprising to learn that the artist’s brother Frederic is depicted. The work, painted in 1942, hangs in the permanent collection of the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton.
Wilson, who died in 2015 at the age of 92, is best known as the sculptor of the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. in the US Capitol. Unveiled in 1986, the work was the first to honor an African-American in the Capitol building. At that time, he was criticized for being too simple and too humble. But Wilson defended himself.
“Humility has absolutely nothing to do with my work. “King’s head is tilted forward – not tilted, so the person below is facing him in a kind of eyeball,” he told the Associated Press. “I wanted to show this kind of thoughtful, thoughtful, inward-looking person, which is what a person is.”
Wilson’s response to criticism of King’s bust is consistent with his view of life. It might be interesting to describe this life in terms that reflect his humbleness: he grew up in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, the son of middle-class immigrants from Guyana, who ran a variety of stores. When he won the commission to create the tsar’s statue, he wrapped it in a blanket and a sleeping bag in the trunk of a Mazda car and took it to the capital himself.
But humility has nothing to do with it. Wilson had a mission: to create powerful, authentic art that represented people in his community, near and far. As a young man, he received a full scholarship to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He later went on to study under Fernand Léger in Paris before winning a grant to study at La Esmeralda National Art School in Mexico City, where he was greatly influenced by Mexican muralists.
In 1952, he painted a lynching of hooded Klansmen. In the foreground, a black man is watching the horrific scene through a window, with his wife and small child by his side. But Wilson’s impulses were reparative, and throughout his career he seems to have retreated from scenes of trauma, focusing instead on images of people he knew, the neighborhoods they lived in.
As a student in Boston, he was struck by the fact that none of the people he saw at the museum looked like him. “Black people can’t be beautiful, real, and precious,” he later told the Boston Globe, and “Black people and their unique experiences are irrelevant and unimportant.”
It is surprising that Wilson’s desire to reverse this trend was not the result of some political awakening. It was before Paris, it was before Mexico. It is in a portrait of his brother that he made when he was 20 years old.
Note the street lamp and apartment building behind it: this is the neighborhood of the two brothers. A cursory background image draws additional attention to Frederick’s exquisitely modeled head.
This is what makes Wilson great: volume, weight, realism and a deep, human, inward presence. “My Brother” is not an art painting, but it defies analysis and expectations like a mature one. It messes up everything around.