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By Katie Kinnear and edited by Danielle Peltakian

An influential member of the Wisconsin Surrealists, John Wilde painted images straight from his imagination. He was a meticulous draftsman who treasured every painting he created.

Table of Contents


John Henry Wilde was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on December 12th, 1919. A fourth generation Wisconsinite, Wilde studied in public school and loved drawing from an early age. It was in high school, upon a trip to the studios of Santos Zingale (1908-1999) and Alfred Sessler (1901-1963) when Wilde first understood the potential for art as a profession, and he promptly began study with the Wisconsin painter Paul Clemens (1911-1992). From 1938 to 1942, Wilde studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, learning about classical and Renaissance art. He used silverpoint and other mediums incompatible to corrections, incorporating an “old-master-style” draftsmanship into his own budding style. In reference to his draftsmanship, Wilde said, “I teach. Why? ...because I believe I must defend drawing.” (Feb 22nd, 1978.)

Fellow artist and friend, Sylvia Fein, described Wilde’s novel approach: "It was apparent from the beginning that something extraordinary was taking place. This just wasn't talent and training. There was [something] supernatural happening, rare, exquisite, fierce, very consistent and stable and constantly generating and cranking out [work] with no apparent struggle or missteps."

During his studies, Wilde was greatly influenced by an older surrealist named Marshall Glasier (1902-1988). The two painters became friends and gatherings with fellow surrealists quickly became regular. The circle of friends included Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-1977), Karl Priebe (1914-1976), Dudley Huppler (1917-1988), and Sylvia Fein (b.1919). The close group often shared ideas and debates in Priebe’s Milwaukee studio and also met in Chicago where Abercrombie had lively salons of her own. Letters were exchanged almost constantly between the friends. Wilde’s various “With Friends” exhibitions are a testament to the lifelong bond of these individuals.

Immediately after receiving his B.S. at Madison in 1942, Wilde was inducted into the army to fight in WWII. During his service in the U.S. Infantry and Air Force, Wilde was assigned to the design of venereal disease prevention propaganda and camouflage patterns. To vent his own artistic ideas, he kept a large sketchbook of portraits and fanciful images. Text in the book conveys his contempt of military service as well as his descent into severe, resentment-sparked depression. During this time, he created larger art pieces based off of his sketches. One such work, Myself in the War (1943), encapsulates Wilde’s growing despair. The drawing, displaying a self-portrait, a roman warrior and an attacking wolf, reads, "Wait for the second day. Perhaps it shall be better. But perhaps, as the wolves told me, it shall only be worse and worse." Other titles are similarly negative: The Sons of Worse Than Bitches Have Put a Hole in My Head! (1944) and My Sentence is Prolonged (1944.) It was during this tumultuous time that Wilde married Helen Ashman in June 1943. She died tragically in 1966.

After the war, Wilde returned to the University of Wisconsin in 1946 to finish his Master of Arts degree at the University of Wisconsin. In his thesis on surrealist, Max Ernst, Wilde assailed the American Scene style and defended the surrealism and the “validity of the irrational, of nonsense, of wit.” Wilde went on to teach drawing at his alma mater in 1948, later becoming a Professor Emeritus and receiving numerous awards including the Alfred Sessler Distinguished Professor of Art. He married his second wife, Shirley in 1969.

Throughout this time, Wilde continued to keep a fairly regular diary, often musing over how the high price of famous art contrasted with the struggle of lesser-known artists like himself. Being opposed to the Government Endowment of the Arts made him a bit of a maverick and he forever worried over the process of selling his work. Wilde once described these troubles: “As ever, with patrons I am tense, embarrassed and eventually exhausted. What does one say? I am, without a doubt, my own world’s worst spokesman – saying things like “oh if you’re interested” or “ that old thing.” I cannot bring myself to think of my work as commercially valuable.” But he conceded the importance of some profit and continued to push his work to the forefront of the art world. He wrote, “I will do another pitch to an NYC dealer or agent. It is… demeaning- yet I do it. Do I think it is worth the while – yes. I suppose I do.” (Feb 18th, 1978) but he was repeatedly faced with disappointment: “I look at the College Art Journal and read the list of acquisitions - and though Yale lists a number of things, not a word about my drawing. I am, in my growing paranoia, convinced that there is a conspiracy to keep my name out of print, or any kind of public recognition, much less acclaim.” (March 29th, 1978)

But hard work and patience paid off, and his work became well known with the success of personal exhibitions in major cities: Chicago in 1978, Madison in1979, Milwaukee in 1982 and New York in 1984. Wilde’s work was not popular in the midst of the abstract expressionist revolution (as his pieces always had a subject.) But today, Wilde’s works are a part of collections in the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.

Wilde died of cancer on March 10th, 2006 in his home in the Rock County community of Evansville, Wisconsin. He was 86 years old. In May 2006, Wilde was posthumously given the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award, a highly respected tribute that has also honored artists such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Brooks Stevens. Wilde is survived by his wife, Shirley; sons Jonathan Wilde, Robert Grilley and Dorian Grilley; and daughters Phoebe Wilde and Rinalda Grilley.

9 x 14.875 inches
oil on board

II. Wisconsin Surrealism

During the 1930s, the American Midwest was understood as a haven of the pastoral tradition, seemingly removed from the bustling European and East Coast cities. Idyllic depictions of the farming life or beautiful vistas were upheld as acceptable subject matter for the art of the region. However, America’s conservative art trend was soon challenged by the introduction of Surrealism to the area. The Surrealist movement advocated the union of the imagination and reality, and it seemed out of place to the conservative critic in the American Midwest .

In Wisconsin, a new faction of American artists took up the tenants introduced by André Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto” of 1924. John Wilde was a prominent member of this group, which would later be recognized as the Wisconsin Surrealist Movement. He and fellow artists Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-1977), Marshall Glasier (1902-1988), Karl Priebe (1914-1976), Dudley Huppler (1917-1988) and Sylvia Fein (b. 1919) rejected “American Scene” painting and cultivated their own version of the Surrealist style. The University of Wisconsin-Madison became the new hotbed of debate as the acceptance of Surrealism pervaded the university’s art program.

Different from past Surrealists, Wilde and his peers depicted surreal images directly from their imaginations and were less concerned with dreams and psychology. In 1942, Alfred Barr, then curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, more specifically named this new surrealist style as “magic realism.” Such a term is clearly justified in the work of Wilde. He pairs realistic details and impeccable draftsmanship with fanciful images of unusual landscapes. The result is a truly personal, sometimes ironic, picture of reality.


John Wilde’s process of painting was meticulous and often included many drafts in silver point. His paintings were intensely personal to him, and they often sat in his studio for months at a time. He would constantly return to his works and reevaluate them, making changes when he felt it necessary.

In one, reflective journal essay, John Wilde wrote: “All art (comes) from sex and the awareness of death.” No other quote can best sum up the philosophy that John Wilde lived by. Much of his work can be divided according to these two subjects-- sexuality and death.

The focus of Wilde’s painting Her Menagerie of 1999 is a seemingly classic painting of the reclining, female nude. However, Wilde’s reasoning is far from the traditional realm of feminine beauty. He writes, “[The female nude] is symbolic of reality—the stark reality of nakedness; its bluntness and its nice un-niceness.” So, as viewers, we must ask- what exactly is the reality Wilde is attempting to convey in his art?

In Her Menagerie of 1999, a pale woman feeds an assembly of animals. While the birds stare intently upon the offered seed, the dog ominously watches the dangled meat. Traditionally, a dog symbolized fidelity in the works of the Old Masters, which Wilde himself so greatly admired. However, the pose of the nude woman is immodest. To wit, the two cats in the foreground stare out at the viewer in an almost challenging gaze. In this context, the cats appear to suggest independence. This nude, to return to tradition, is a witty comment on infidelity and the dangers of sexuality.

In the painting Studio Still Life– Red of 2001, Wilde evidences the second part of his mantra-- an awareness of death. In this still life, Wilde used fruit, as he often did, to symbolize fertility. The warm colors and sifted light which surrounds the bounty on the table evoke feelings of autumn and harvest. However, a closer inspection reveals that one element seems at odds with the others-- the large slab of meat at the center of the fruit. The meat of a dead animal, plays up the tradition of the memento mori. As in many of his works, the reminder of death is always present, hidden behind delicate brushwork and a shimmering surface.

Those who see the work of John Wilde glimpse a magical reality that is different enough to inspire and familiar enough to engage. While we are left wondering upon the precise meaning of each work, perhaps we should remember that Wilde appreciated pure observation, simple joys, and the full scope of human life-- the good and the bad. To him, his studio was a refuge where he could develop common themes from his physical surroundings or peers, as well as recreate scenes from his imagination. When pondering on what would his perfect day entail, Wilde once stated that it would require him to be “alone with my true love, a little (studio) work, a little yard work" and "no one to see, no one around, no nonsense.” Today, it is the fruits of these days that are his legacy.


  • 1919 Born on December 12th in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Mathilda and Emil Wilde
  • 1938 Started studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • 1940 First individual exhibition at the Zona Gale Museum, Portage, WI
  • 1942 Received B.S. from University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • 1942 Drafted U.S Army and Air Force during WWII
  • 1943 Married first wife Helen Ashman
  • 1948 Received M.A. from University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • 1948 Instructor, Department of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • 1960 Professor, Department of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • 1966 Death of wife Helen
  • 1968 Alfred Sessler Professor of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • 1969 Married second wife Shirley
  • 1982 Emeritus Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • 1994 Elected full academician at the National Academy of Design, New York, NY
  • 2006 Died on March 9th in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

    Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
  • Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin (formerly Elvehjem Museum of Art)
  • Madison Art Center, Madison, Wisconsin
  • Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, Wisconsin
  • Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
  • National Museum of American Art
  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
  • Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts
  • Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut
  • *more than 1,400 of his works are held in private collections

    Selected Exhibitions (recent):

  • 1992 Outstanding American Prints, Anderson Gallery of Art, Kenosha, Wisconsin
  • An Eye for Detail, Trompe L’Oeil and Exactitude in American Art,Richard York Gallery, New York, New York
  • Silverpoint, etc.; Contemporary American Metalpoint Drawings, Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Silver Jubilee, Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin
  • 1993 Eros and Thanatos, John Wilde Retrospective, Madison Art Center, Madison, Wisconsin
  • Perimeter Gallery, Chicago, Illinois
  • An Uncommon Line: Five Americans, Schmidt Bingham Gallery, New York, New York
  • Wisconsin Triennial, Madison Art Center, Wisconsin
  • Dreams, Hopes, Fears, Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin
  • Pets: An American Passion, Wustrum Museum of Fine Arts, Racine, Wisconsin
  • 1994 Collector’s Show, The Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Unstill Life, Fine Art Center Galleries, University of Rhode Island, Kingston
  • 1995 Collector’s Choice, The Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Irrational Landscapes, Binghamton University Art Museum, Binghamton, and New York Academy of Sciences, New York
  • Annual Members Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, New York
  • 1996 Collector’s Show, The Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Peep Show, Schmidt Bingham Gallery, New York, New York
  • Are You Blue?, Schmidt Bingham Gallery, New York, New York
  • Wisconsin Triennial, Madison Art Center, Madison, Wisconsin
  • 1997 Tory Folliard Gallery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • 172nd Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, New York
  • Realism in 20th Century American Painting, Oganquit Museum of American Art, Organquit, Maine
  • The Figure Revisited, The Gallery at Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, New York
  • Wit, Whimsy, and Humor, Castle Gallery,Callege of New Rochelle, New York
  • 1998 Schmidt Bingham Gallery, New York, New York
  • Silverpoint Drawings 1947-1997, The Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, Madison, Wisconsin
  • 1999 Wildeworld, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin (formerly Elvehjem Museum of Art)
  • 2000 Schmidt Bingham Gallery, New York, New York
  • 2001 Perimeter Gallery, New York, New York
  • 2003 Spanierman Gallery, New York, New York
  • 2004 Perimeter Gallery, Chicago, Illinois
  • 2005 With Friends, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin
  • 2006 With Old Friends: New Work by John Wilde, Spanierman Gallery, LLC, New York, New York
  • Selected Exhibitions:

  • 1940 Zona Gale Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin
  • 1942 University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin
  • 1948 Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, Michigan
  • 1952 The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
  • 1956, 1962, 1967, 1978 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
  • 1961 Bergstrom -MahlerArt Museum, Neenah, Wisconsin
  • 1962 Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • 1967 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • 1967, 1993, 1998 Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • 1969, 1986, 1997, 2001 National Academy of Design, New York, New York
  • 1970 The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
  • 1971, 1993, 1996, 1998 Madison Art Center, Madison, Wisconsin
  • 1973 Corcoran Gallery Biennial, Washington D.C.
  • 1973, 1974 Albrecht Museum of Art, St. Joseph, Missouri
  • 1980 The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
  • 1985, 1996, 1997, 1999 The Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, Arkansas
  • 1985, 1999, 2005, 2006 Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin (formerly Elvehjem Museum of Art)
  • 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000 Schmidt Bingham Gallery, New York, New York
  • 1987, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 2001, 2004 The Perimeter Gallery, Chicago, Illinois
  • 1989 The West Publishing Collection, St. Paul, MN
  • 1992, 1995 Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan
  • 1993 Rahr-West Museum of Art, Manitowoc, Wisconsin
  • 1995, 1997 Tory Folliard Gallery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • 1998 Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, Racine, Wisconsin
  • 2002 The Frye Museum, Seattle, Washington
  • 2003, 2006 Spanierman Gallery, LLC, New York, New York

  • Fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters
  • National Academy of Design, New York City

  • 1963 Lambert Purchase Award, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
  • 1965, 1980 Childe Hassam Purchase Award, National Academy of Design
  • 1970 First Purchase Award, Butler Gallery of American Art, Youngstown, OH
  • 1982 Alfred Sessler Distinguished Professor of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • 1984 Purchase Award, The West Publishing Company, Atlanta, GA
  • 2006 Wisconsin Visual Arts Lifetime Achievement Award

    1. 1. Ask Art, entry for John Henry Wilde, (www.
    2. 2. Cozzolino, Robert, In Memoriam: John Wilde (1919-2006), Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors Inc., Art in Wisconsin
    3. 3. Cozzolino, Robert, Myself During the War: John Wilde’s WWII Sketchbook, Elvehjem Museum of Art Bullitin (Spring 2002), p. 41-54
    4. 4. Doss, Erika, John Wilde, Recent Work
    5. 5. Doss, Eirka, With Old Friends: New Work by John Wilde (2006 exhibition catalogue, Spanierman Gallery, New York, NY)
    6. 6. Duncan, Michael, Wilde at Schmidt Bingham-New York, New York (review of exhibitions) Art in America, October 1994
    7. 7. Duncan, Michael, Heretics of the Heartland (review of With Friends exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art for Art in America, February 2006)
    8. 8. Goldstein, Rosalie, Leaders in Wisconsin art, 1936-1981 : John Steuart Curry, Aaron Bohrod, John Wilde, (Milwaukee Art Museum, April 4-May 23, 1982)
    9. 9. Hamady, Walter, 1985, The Twelve Months, 1992?Twelve Paintings by John Wilde, with other illustrations
    10. 10. Hedy O'Beil, John Wilde, Arts Magazine 59 (October 1984): 6
    11. 11. O’Beil, Hedy, John Wilde, Arts 59 (October 1984)
    12. 12. Panczenko, Russell, Wildeworld: the art of John Wilde with an essay by Theodore F. Wolff. (New York: Hudson Hill Press, 1999)
    13. 13. Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Collection description, John Wilde
    14. 14. Schumacher, Mary Louise, Wilde found path of ‘magic realism’ in art, (obituary for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 12th, 2006)
    15. 15. Smithsonian Museum of American Art, John Wilde Diary Collection Microfilm reel(s): 1154-1157, 2539-2540 and 4710, 2539a, 4710a, and 5661 (
    16. 16. Tandem Press, John Wilde, University Wisconsin-Madison
    17. 17. Wilde, John, Interview with John Wilde, conducted and edited by Russell Panczenko, September 1998, Wildeworld, p. 31
    18. 18. Wilde, John, Whmshw : what his mother's son hath wrought ; twenty-four representative paintings with excerpts from notebooks kept off and on between the years nineteen forty through nineteen eighty-eight.
    19. 19. Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award, John Wilde, 2006 Award Recipient Profiles, (
    20. 20. Wolff, Theodore F., Artists at Work, Christian Science Monitor (July 2nd, 1986, p. 16-17)


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