Ellis Wilson is best known for paintings that presented African American subjects with objectivity and dignity, devoid of idealization, caricature, or mythical attributes. A colorist with a preference for simplified modern compositions, Wilson wrote in a 1939 Guggenheim fellowship application that he was “most interested in painting the Negro. Unfortunately, this type of painting hasn’t a large following at present. I am desirous of both making a name for myself in the Art World and to create paintings which will be a credit to my Race and my time.”

Wilson attributed his artistic inclinations to his father, an amateur painter who worked in what Wilson described as a primitive style. Growing up in Mayfield, Kentucky, young Ellis held a variety of odd jobs and constantly looked for creative outlets in the midst of the mundane. While employed as the janitor for a local dress shop, for example, Wilson drew pictures on the store window using cleaning soap, an exercise that was subsequently encouraged by the shop owner as a promotional ploy. In 1916, Wilson enrolled at Frankfurt’s Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute for Colored Persons (now Kentucky State University). Frustrated that his studies were limited to either agriculture or education, he left after two years, embarking on a decade-long residency in Chicago. There, Wilson earned a degree from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1923 and participated in the Chicago Art League. The typically shy and reserved youth blossomed during these years. It was a time of inspiration for Wilson, who was interacting with other creative African Americans.

After briefly working as a commercial artist in Chicago, Wilson moved to New York. There, he became involved with the Harmon Foundation, exhibiting his work in the 1933 and 1935 annuals. From 1935 to 1940, Wilson found steady employment, as did so many artists of the day, with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Once again, Wilson’s relationships with other African American artists, such as Joseph Delaney, proved fruitful. Undoubtedly inspired by the early work of Abstract Expressionist painters also working for the WPA, Wilson’s academic style gradually became more abstract. A series of works of airplane factory laborers created during these years won him a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1944 and, again, in 1945. Wilson used these funds to travel throughout the South and capture the “poise and simple dignity” of African Americans at work. He painted men making turpentine in Georgia, laborers hewing lumber in South Carolina, and field hands harvesting tobacco in Kentucky.

With prize monies from the 1952 National Terry Art Exhibition, Wilson took the first of several trips to Haiti. Invigorated by African-Caribbean culture, Wilson abandoned his representational style in favor of an almost fauvist abstraction executed in heightened color. His subjects appear as black silhouetted forms devoid of facial features and clothed in basic geometric shapes absent of folds and other details, as evidenced by African Princesses.

Although Wilson continued to paint until his death in 1977, his work fell into relative obscurity in the 1950s. Interest was renewed, however, in the 1980s when his painting Funeral Procession (circa 1950) was used on the set of the popular television series, The Cosby Show. His paintings have since been featured in numerous national exhibitions and, in 2000, Kentucky Educational Television produced a documentary titled Ellis Wilson: So Much to Paint. Today, Wilson’s work can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, among others.