University of Kentucky Art Museum

Lexington, KY



Ellis Wilson (1899-1977)

April 9 - June 25, 2000


On April 9, 2000 the University Art Museum opened an important exhibition of paintings by the African American artist and Kentucky native Ellis Wilson (1899-1977). A representational painter, Wilson's early work includes still lifes and portraits of family and friends. He was particularly interested in--and noted for--genre scenes of the daily activities of the African American community, and his paintings garnered several awards. His portrayal of a worker in a New Jersey aircraft engine factory won the 1944 Guggenheim award, an award he won again in 1945, in addition to second prize in the 1952 Terry Art Institute National Contest. These prizes enabled him to travel throughout the South and to Haiti where he produced many works of African American and Haitian daily life. (left: Chair Vendors, Haiti, 1965, oil on masonite, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA)

Margaret Vendryes, writing in the catalogue that accompanies this exhibition, notes that: "Wilson made art for the sheer joy of recreating, in color applied with forever dancing brushstrokes, what he witnessed in other people's lives. He was an insatiable recorder of the beauty that most take for granted." (left: Lumberjacks, 1944-45, oil on composite board, Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY)

The son of a barber and amateur painter, Wilson was born in Mayfield, Kentucky, and attended Kentucky State College in Frankfort for two years before enrolling in the Chicago Art Institute, from which he graduated in 1923. For the next five years, he worked in Chicago as a commercial artist and, in 1927, he was featured in a Chicago Art League festival alongside other prominent African American artists, such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Edward Mitchell Bannister, and Richmond Barthe. Wilson moved New York City in 1928, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. In the 1930s, he participated in the Harmon Foundation traveling exhibitions and he produced work for the Works Progress Administration / Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1940. During the war, he was commissioned by the Citizens Committee for the Army and Navy to create religious triptychs for barrack and naval chapels. (right: Two Women with Lanterns, c. 1950s, oil on masonite, Stanback Museum and Planetarium, Orangeburg, SC)

The exhibition catalogue The Art of Ellis Wilson with essays by exhibition curator Albert F. Sperath, Margaret R. Vendryes, Steven H, Jones, and Eva F. King will be available at the museum. (left: Still Life with Fruit, 1950, oil on board, Michael Rosenfield Gallery, New York, NY)

This exhibition was organized by Albert Sperath, director of the University Art Galleries at Murray State University, Murray, Kentucky. It premiered at the Murray State University Clara M. Eagle Art Gallery in February 2000 prior to traveling to the University of Kentucky Art Museum.


Read more about the University Art Museum, University of Kentucky in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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