Perspective | His MLK sculpture was the Capitol’s first. This painting is personal.

This portrait by John Wilson has an emphatic, dimensional force in the subject’s head (it all but detracts from the panel on which it was painted) and, at the same time, a simple, unforced softness. So it’s no surprise to learn that it features the artist’s brother, Frederick. The work, painted in 1942, hangs in the permanent collection. Smith College Museum of Art In Northampton, Mass.

Wilson, who died in 2015 at the age of 92, is best known as a sculptor. Martin Luther King Jr in the US Capitol Rotunda. Unveiled in 1986, the work was the first to honor an African American in a Capitol building. At the time it was criticized for being too modest, too humble. But Wilson defended himself.

“Humility had absolutely nothing to do with my piece. King’s head is bent forward — not bowed — so that someone standing below would be eye-to-eye with him,” he told The Associated Press. “I wanted to show the kind of thoughtful, contemplative, introspective person that is the essence of this man.”

Wilson’s response to Kingbust’s criticisms is consistent with his lifelong approach. It might be tempting to call this life his own humbleness: 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 sculpt the king, he personally wrapped him in a blanket and carried him in a sleeping bag in the trunk of his Mazda.

But then, humility had nothing to do with it. Wilson had a mission: to create powerful, sincere art that represented the people of his community, near and far. As a teenager, he won a full scholarship to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He later studied under Fernand Léger in Paris before winning a grant to attend the National Art School La Esmeralda in Mexico City, where he was powerfully influenced by him. Mexican Moralist.

In 1952, he painted a picture hooded Klansmen commit a lynching. In the foreground, a black man looks out the window at the horrific scene, his wife and small child with him. But Wilson’s motivations were improvisational, and throughout his career, he seemed to shy away from scenes of trauma and instead focused on portraits of people he knew, the neighborhoods they were from. .

He was struck as a student in Boston, he said, that none of the people he saw at the museum looked like him. “It meant that black people were not capable of being beautiful and true and valuable,” he later told the Boston Globe, and that “black people and their special experience were irrelevant and unimportant. “

It is surprising that Wilson’s determination to end this prejudice was not the result of some kind of political awakening. He did it before Paris, before Mexico. It is in a portrait of his brother, which he painted when he was only 20 years old.

Notice the street lamp and the apartment building behind it: this is the brothers’ neighborhood. A cursory rendering of the background gives additional emphasis to Frederick’s superbly modeled head.

This is what Wilson was great at: capturing volume, weight, sincerity and a deep, human, inner-directed presence. “My Brother” is not a fancy painting, but it has the same resistance to analysis and expectation that an adult would have. It makes everything around it seem chaotic.

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