The subject’s head in this John Wilson portrait has a thrusting, faceted force (it all but pops off the panel it was painted on) and at the same time, a simple, unforced tenderness. So it’s unsurprising to learn that it depicts the artist’s brother, Frederick. The work, which was painted in 1942, hangs in the permanent collection at Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Mass.
Wilson, who died in 2015, at 92, is better known as the sculptor of a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. Unveiled in 1986, that work was the first in the Capitol building to honor an African American. It was criticized at the time for being too modest, too humble. But Wilson defended himself.
“Humility had absolutely nothing to do with my piece. King’s head is tilted forward — not bowed — so that someone standing below will have a kind of eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with him,” he told the Associated Press. “I wanted to show that kind of brooding, contemplative, inner-directed person that’s the essence of the man.”
Wilson’s response to the criticisms of the King bust is consistent with his lifelong approach. It may be tempting to cast that life in terms that emphasize his own humility: He grew up in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, the son of middle-class immigrants from Guyana who ran a variety store. When he won the commission to make the King statue, he personally drove it down to the capital, wrapped in a blanket and sleeping bag in the trunk of his Mazda.
But again, humility had nothing to do with it. Wilson had a mission: to make powerful, sincere art that represented people in his community, near and far. As a young man, he earned a full scholarship to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He later went on to study under Fernand Léger in Paris, before winning a grant to attend Mexico City’s national art school, La Esmeralda, where he was powerfully affected by the Mexican muralists.
In 1952, he painted an image of hooded Klansmen committing a lynching. In the foreground, a Black man watches the horrific scene unfold through a window, his wife and young child beside him. But Wilson’s impulses were reparative, and throughout his career, he seemed to recoil from scenes of trauma and focus instead on depictions of people he knew, in the neighborhoods they were from.
He had been struck as a student in Boston, he said, that none of the people he saw in the museum looked like him. “The implication was that Black people were not capable of being beautiful and true and precious,” he later told the Boston Globe, and that “Black people and their special experience were irrelevant and unimportant.”
It’s striking that Wilson’s commitment to overturning this bias was not a result of some kind of political awakening. It predated Paris, it predated Mexico. It’s here in his portrait of his brother, which he made when he was just 20.
Notice the streetlamp and apartment building behind him: This is the two brothers’ neighborhood. The background’s cursory rendering lends extra emphasis to Frederick’s superbly modeled head.
This is what Wilson was great at: volume, weight, sincerity and capturing deep, human, inner-directed presence. “My Brother” is not a fancy painting, but it has the same resistance to analysis and expectation that a mature person has. It makes everything around it seem fussy.