John E. Dowell, Jr Sam Gilliam Felrath Hines Gordon Parks Lorna Simpson Richard Hunt Romare Bearden John Woodrow Wilson Robert Colescott Adrian Piper Renée Stout Eldzier Cortor Richard Mayhew Carl Pope
African American Art Text Graphic

John Woodrow Wilson

Martin Luther King Jr. , 2002

A noted sculptor, painter, and printmaker, John Wilson is best known for his powerful portraits of African American men. While most of the artist’s earlier images immortalized the anonymous working-class male, this work depicts Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—one of the most famous and revered black leaders of the twentieth century. The print relates to one of Wilson’s most important sculpture commissions: in 1985 he won a prestigious national competition to create a memorial statue of Dr. King for the United States Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. While the sculpture alludes to Wilson’s monumental, idealized heads of the period—which he said represented “a symbolic black presence infused with a sense of universal humanity”—it takes the form of a more traditional half-length portrait bust.

Despite its formality and solemnity, the sculpture strove to capture the inner spirit of its subject. Coretta Scott King said that Wilson’s design was chosen because it captured the salient qualities of her late husband’s character and physical expression. Wilson wanted people to recognize Dr. King’s visage, but he also wanted them to sense his intangible energy and strength, as well as his personal struggles. As Wilson noted, “You couldn’t possibly grow up a black person without understanding the conflicts and anxieties in King. A calm and serene presence—but conflicts, worries inside.” This sense of weariness and vulnerability—suggested by the figure’s slightly down-turned eyes, darkened face, and sloping shoulders—comes through even more strongly in the print, which was based on studies for the sculpture but produced almost twenty year later. 

The print’s near life-size scale and imposing frontality suggest a feeling of strength and stability, while its technique offers a remarkable intimacy—aided by a loose drawing style that extends beyond the chine collé and by print marks that mimic the smudges of a working study. The work’s informality is heightened by the sparsely delineated background and clothing. Wilson’s ability to make the work feel monumental and at the same time approachable renders Dr. King as both a hero and a man.   

Wilson’s interest in figural art can be traced to his childhood in Roxbury, Massachusetts, where he took life drawing classes taught by students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 1939 Wilson was accepted into the school on a full scholarship. He studied with the German émigré artist Karl Zerbe, who exposed Wilson to German Expressionist art and encouraged him to explore social issues in his work. In 1943, when he was only twenty-one, Wilson created a revolutionary series called Deliver Us from Evil, which conflated images of Nazi oppression of the Jews with depictions of social injustices against blacks in America. While he continued to explore themes of racial discrimination and class oppression, Wilson developed a greater international focus and an interest in monumental art through his studies in Paris and Mexico. In 1953 he returned to the United States to raise his family in an African American community and to participate in the growing civil rights movement. Wilson also helped to develop the art department at Boston University, where he served as a professor until 1986. After his retirement from academia, Wilson began making prints with James Stroud at the Center Street Studio in Boston, including a suite of etchings that illustrate Richard Wright’s short story Down by the Riverside and several prints based on his monumental sculpture Eternal Presence and on the King commission.

Romare Bearden, The Family

John Woodrow Wilson
American, b. 1922
Martin Luther King Jr., 2002
Etching and aquatint on chine collé
Image: h. 30 1/2 x w. 27 3/4" (77.5 x 70.5 cm); sheet: h. 35 3 /4 x w. 29 3/4” (90.8 x 75.6 cm)
Purchased in honor of former Chancellor Sharon Brehm,
IU Art Museum 2005.16
Art © John Wilson/Licensed by

Romare Bearden
Robert Colescott
John E. Dowell, Jr
Sam Gilliam
Felrath Hines
Richard Hunt
Gordon Parks
Adrian Piper
Lorna Simpson
John Woodrow Wilson
Renée Stout
Eldzier Cortor
Richard Mayhew
Carl Pope