Annandale, New South Wales, Australia 1911 – Sydney, New South Wales, Australia 1946

  • England 1937-39

The artist's mother 1937 Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Primary Insc: Signed u.r., in pencil "Eric Wilson" not dated. Inscribed u.l., in blue oil paint "FYZ/306", u.l., in pencil "N.S.W (awarded)/ Travelling Schol. 1937". Inscribed reverse support centre, in charcoal "FYZ/306".
Dimensions: 95.0 h x 71.6 w cm framed (overall) 1214 h x 980 w x 85 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1975
Accession No: NGA 75.57
Subject: Mrs Jean Wilson
  • Skilfully composed of contrasts of light and dark, punctuated by three brilliant red highlights, The artist’s mother is a sober, unadorned image, somewhat as we suspect the sitter’s personality to be. She looks out at her son, a little warily, sitting stiffly, conscious of being observed. Dressed in her Sunday best with silk blouse and fur-trimmed coat, she is an unremarkable middle-aged woman, a respectable and upright member of the community and most probably, like her son, a devout Seventh Day Adventist. With hat on and gloves and umbrella in hand she appears as if ready to go out but delayed by her son’s request to pose for him. It is this quality, beyond the meticulous realism with which it is painted, which gives the work its particular photographic quality, of a moment captured rather than the many sittings which would have gone into painting this portrait.

    Wilson gives us few clues as to the subject, the wedding band and poppy hinting at the intersection between personal and national narratives. More telling is the way in which Wilson has composed the portrait so that his mother’s form takes up almost the entire canvas. Placed centrally against a neutral background there is nothing in the picture except her, and it is easy to speculate that in his life Wilson accorded his mother the same central importance.

    Madeline Wilson (née Hawkes) was born in Wagga Wagga in 1880 and married in 1908. She was supportive of her son’s ambition to become an artist and, while mothers can make convenient models, it is also likely indicative of their closeness that Wilson painted his mother several times. She is the central figure in Domestic Interior 1935, and the subject of his Archibald Prize entries in 1942, The artist’s mother c 1942 (NRAG) and in 1944, The painter’s mother c 1944 (NGV). Madeline Wilson died in 1950, surviving her son by four years.

    Elena Taylor

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010

  • Eric Wilson was a deeply religious man and a disciplined artist. His training in the realist tradition, at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School during the 1930s, reinforced his conviction that in art truth can only be achieved by copying precisely from life.

    A consummate draughtsman, Wilson never wavered in his dedication to his chosen field and lived a frugal lifestyle in order to paint and eventually fulfil a dream of studying overseas. He entered the New South Wales Travelling Scholarship three times before he eventually won, in 1937, with six precisely composed and constructed works including this drawing and painting. One is a curious self-portrait as a diver, the other a portrait of Wilson’s mother. His familiarity with his subject matter allowed him to study his subjects intimately and then reproduce them in meticulous detail. Both gaze calmly and unflinchingly at the viewer, for truth is of the essence. Wilson did not clutter his portraits with background detail; all attention is focused on the subjects as they are of prime importance.

    Paradoxically, it was the Travelling Scholarship, awarded for these incredibly detailed realist works, that made possible Wilson’s experimentation with abstraction. In London, he studied at the Westminster School and at the London Academy under Amedée Ozenfant, who introduced him to Purism, an academised form of Cubism. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Wilson was forced to return to Australia and, over the next few years, he took up teaching positions at East Sydney Technical College, Cranbrook School and the Sydney Art School. He continued to experiment with abstraction but always maintained his dedication to realism through his sketchbooks, portraiture and landscapes. Tragically, Wilson’s career was cut short by his sudden death in 1946.

    Anne McDonald

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002