In Search of ... the Lost Ellis Wilson
by Albert Sperath
Project Director and Curator of the Ellis Wilson Retrospective, 2000
The essay below was written in 2000, at the time the KET documentary Ellis Wilson—So Much To Paint and this companion web site were launched. Since then, many more works by Ellis Wilson have been located—including Sperath’s “Most Wanted” painting, Fisherwoman. But he continues to maintain a database of Ellis Wilson works and is still eager to hear from people who discover them.
My goal is to eventually find every Ellis Wilson painting and other artwork in existence. To date, I have located about 100. The number is not exact because I have not seen some of the art and only know of its existence through reliable sources. Some collectors are reluctant to share their holdings, for various reasons, and I respect that wish. I do continue the search, however, and through this web site, I hope to find and document more.
For instance, there is the matter of the Terry Art Collection in Miami, FL. In 1952, Ellis Wilson won a significant award for Fisherwoman (pictured at right in a reproduction from a 1940s edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal), and the painting became part of the Terry collection. It is one of my favorites, but I have had no luck in trying to locate it. What happened to the Terry Art Collection? Is it still intact, or did it get broken up?
A second instance of knowing the location of a piece of art at a specific time but being unable to trace its present whereabouts is the collection of the Henry McIntyre family (interestingly, the Terry and McIntyre collections may be linked). The August 1962 issue of House and Garden featured the McIntyres’ San Francisco house, both on the cover and in an article. I can identify one Wilson painting from the magazine cover, of seven African-American women carrying umbrellas. The second one is less sure. In figure 9, page 75, at the back of the room is what is likely the Fisherwoman painting—perhaps the same one as in the Terry collection. I can’t be sure, though, because I discovered that Wilson would often paint the same scene with minor changes and title it differently. I discovered this article/collection during my primary research but was unable to pursue it further because the rest of the project had to get done.
Other little discoveries have also come to light. After my visit to the Schomburg collection, a sculpture of a small girl’s or woman’s head was found sitting on a shelf in storage by Tammi Lawson. Wilson’s signature on that piece is easily identified. And as recently as February 2000, another small head sculpture was given to the Schomburg by a Manhattan donor. I hope that these small discoveries continue to happen—and that they lead to big discoveries, like the whereabouts of Fisherwoman.
Additional roles this web site can fulfill are also important. This past summer, a Wilson still life was stolen from a collector in New Mexico. It is one of three versions I know of depicting gourds in a bowl. It is a small painting, just recently conserved. If it turns up, please let me know and I will tell the proper owner. Please note that one of the other two known versions is on the market now; it is not to be confused with the stolen one.
Any assistance you can provide in my search for Ellis Wilson’s art would be greatly appreciated.
Director, University Museums
University of Mississippi
University, MS 38677
fax (662) 915-7035