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John Wilde

John Wilde with Sylvia Fein

Artists Sylvia Fein (left) and John Wilde (right), circa 1940-1941. Unknown photographer, from the Sylvia Fein papers, courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, District of Columbia, via americanart.si.edu

Iconoclastic Modern Artist in Wisconsin

American surrealist John Wilde was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1919. He studied art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he met Marshall Glasier whose studio was the center of the Madison art scene. Reacting against the American regionalism of artists like John Steuart Curry, who was then artist-in-residence on campus, Wilde, Glasier, and other young artists developed an unorthodox creative vision. This group also included Karl Priebe, working in Milwaukee, as well as Gertrude Abercrombie in Chicago. Wilde’s biggest academic influence was professor James Watrous, who instilled a deep appreciation for classical techniques and handmade mediums.

World War II and Return to University of Wisconsin–Madison

After Wilde graduated in 1942, he was drafted into the Army to serve in World War II as an artist for the venereal disease program and he also created terrain maps. Disenchanted with this experience, Wilde started a sketchbook that would provide future ideas. In 1946, Wilde returned to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to earn his Master’s degree in art history. Wilde’s thesis was on the surrealist Max Ernst, but he also included a critique of abstract expressionism.

Classically Influenced, Representational Surrealism

Far from conventional, Wilde was a committed representational artist. Since his youth, he had enjoyed drawing the human form, animals, flowers, plants, fruits, and vegetables. Wilde combined the Renaissance ardor for depicting the body with the playful incongruity of surrealist symbols. Wilde’s paintings often feature nudes, mostly female, in fantastic landscapes with emblems of death. He also frequently painted proxies of himself into scenes. Along with painting, Wilde excelled at silverpoint, which he learned from Watrous. In the 1980s and 1990s, Wilde painted a series of Reconsidered works mining his earlier sketchbooks.

Teaching Background and Posthumous Reassessment

In addition to being a prolific artist, Wilde taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison from 1948 to 1982. From 1948 to 1978, the magic realist Aaron Bohrod was artist-in-residence, but he did not teach and Wilde quietly resented Bohrod’s simpler style and commercial appeal. Wilde passed away in 2006 at age 86 in Evansville, Wisconsin. Since Wilde’s death, the demand for his work has steadily increased. Wilde is now included in the collections of prominent institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and many others.

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John Wilde
John Wilde
John Wilde
John Wilde
John Wilde
John Wilde
John Wilde
John Wilde