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 Ronald York Wilson  (1907 - 1984)

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Lived/Active: Ontario/New York / Canada/Mexico      Known for: figure, genre, oriental painting, murals

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Ad Code: 3
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Polynesian Girl - 17" X 24" oil on masonite, signed (circa 1950)
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Ronald York Wilson RCA, OSA, CGP, ALC (1907 – 1984)

Ronald York Wilson was a painter, commercial artist and muralist who was born in Toronto and after much traveling returned there in the last years of his life (1982). He also had a home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and a studio in New York City.  His mediums were oil, acrylic, watercolor, ink, collage, chalk, pencil, lithograph, charcoal and much more.  His subjects were pure abstract, seascapes, landscapes, nudes, figures, portraits, historical, and social commentary.  His styles abstract expressionism, geometric abstract, primitive and representational.

He studied at the Central Technical School in Toronto with Fred Challener, Peter Haworth and Alfred Howell.  His first job was at Brigden’s Engraving House (1926) where he was further influenced by the artists Charles Comfort and Will Ogilvie.  He moved from there to Sampson-Matthews, where he worked with Franklin Carmichael and A.J. Casson, both members of the Group of Seven.  He has traveled extensively in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, the West Indies, and Africa; on several occasions for extended periods of up to 4 years.  He has also traveled to northern Canada and numerous times to Mexico, before moving there the 1970’s.  In 1950 he left commercial art and became a full-time painter.

He was best known for his commissioned murals which can be seen at  McGill University's library (Montreal), The Imperial Oil Building (Toronto), the O’Keefe Centre for the Performing Arts (now the Sony Centre) (Toronto), Bell Canada (Toronto), the Ontario government at Queen's Park (Toronto) and Carleton University (Ottawa).

He was a member of the Ontario Society of Artists from 1942 and its President in 1946; and a member and President (1967) of The Canadian Group of Painters.  He was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy in 1948.   He was also a member of the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto.

He exhibited his work continuously with the above organizations, starting in 1931 with the RCA.  This includes over 60 solo shows and over 500 group shows.  The venues have included the National Gallery of Canada (numerous shows); the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; the New York World’s Fair (1939); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1947); The Excelsior, Mexico (1949); The Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (1952); L’Art au Canada Bordeaux, France (1962); the Bieniale do Museo de Arte Moderna Sao Paolo (1963); Palacio Bellas Artes, Mexico (1969); Birla Museum, India (1970); Musee Beaux Arts, Le Havre (1970); Centre George Pompidou, Paris (1978); and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy (1981). In addition there was a traveling retrospective in Canada in the 1970’s that visited 9 museums.

His work is in many private, corporate and public collections.  Some of the public collections are The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris, France; Museo del Arte Moderno, Mexico; Museo Eduardo Westerdahl, Spain; Birla Museum, India; Tanaka Museum, Japan; Uffizi Gallery, Italy; Art Gallery of Nova Scotia; Art Gallery of Windsor; Calgary Art Gallery; Edmonton Art Gallery; Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston; Hamilton Art Gallery; Musee d’Art Contemporain, Montreal; Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon; Vancouver Art Gallery; The McMichael Collection, Kleinburg; The Winnipeg Art Gallery and many more.

His honors include a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Ontario Society of Artists; and the Centennial Medal of Canada (1967).

As one of Canada’s most prominent artists there are many books about Canadian art and art history that discuss his work and its influence.  In addition there are numerous newspaper and magazine articles, television interviews and documentary films.  Some book examples are: The Collector's Dictionary of Canadian Artists at Auction (2001), by Anthony R. Westbridge and Diana L. Bodnar, published by Westbridge Publications Ltd. (4Volumes); Falk's Who Was Who in American Art (3 volumes); and Jaques Cattell Press, Who's Who in American Art 15th Edition (1982), published by R.R.Bowker Co. total pages 1204.  His work is also discussed and illustrated in Four Decades (1972) by Paul Duval, published by Clark Irwin & Co. Ltd. (191 pgs, color); and in Art Gallery of Ontario – the Canadian Collection, published by McGraw-Hill Co. of Canada Ltd. (603pgs,B&W). In addition there is the book York Wilson (1978) by Paul Duval, published by Wallack Gallery, Ottawa (167 pgs,colour) and the book York Wilson – His life and Work, 1907 – 1984) (1997), by Lela Wilson, published by Carlton University Press (294 pgs B&W).  He also illustrated the book  Face at the Bottom of the World (1967), poems by Hagiwara Sakutaro, translated by Graeme Wilson.

Prepared and contributed by M.D. Silverbrooke

Biography from Odon Wagner Gallery:
Ronald York Wilson was born in Toronto on December 6, 1907.  Following two years of formal education in art at Central Technical School in Toronto, Wilson began a successful career as a commercial artist at Brigden’s, later moving on to Sampson-Matthews, where he worked alongside Franklin Carmichael and A.J. Casson, members of the Group of Seven.  This formative experience in the competitive field of illustration allowed Wilson to develop his skills in a variety of media, providing him with a solid technical foundation for his subsequent career as an independent artist.

Wilson’s decisive shift to the world of Fine Art took place in the 1930’s, during a close friendship with Ed Smith, an Upper Canada student.  They went to Detroit together and found work with various art agencies.  They visited art museums, read Fine-Art books, and York was able to take advantage of Ed's more advanced knowledge of Fine Art.

York's first trip to Mexico in 1949 cemented his decision to leave commercial art behind.  The distinctive quality of light and intense colour of Mexico soon became a powerful visual stimulant for Wilson, and even the most abstract of his canvasses from this period bear witness to his experience of the Mexican landscape. He spent several winters in Mexico with his wife and constant companion, Lela.

A nomadic way of life took over, with the couple living in Europe, the Middle and Far East. Wilson's fascination with Mexico finally led him to purchase a house in San Miguel de Allende in the early '70s.  This did not stop the globe-trotting couple who eventually returned to their home in Toronto in 1982.

In spite of the fact that his work was almost entirely abstract for most of the 1950s and 1960s, Wilson never fully repudiated his figurative background, always drawing from a live model at least one afternoon a week.

York's relentless experiments with abstraction resulted in a highly eclectic body of work, including a precise geometric style of painting which had been suppressed in York's subconcious.  He began showing evidence of more interest in slightly conformist work until his return to Paris.

During the first and second nights sleeping in Luc Peire's atelier,(which the couple were renting from their Belgian friend and painter,) York had two dreams of conformist/geometric painting like nothing he had ever seen before.  The struggle to return to his own type of abstract painting continued for 3 months, but the geometrics won, and York eventually returned to Canada with about 50 studies, 2 serigraphs, a tapestry and a vow not to exhibit anything for a year while he evaluated the experiment.  The geometric period ended in 1971 as abruptly as it had started

York Wilson is well known to the Canadian public for his murals.  His reputation as a muralist rests on a series of prominent public works dating from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s.  This period saw the completion of murals for Imperial Oil, the O’Keefe Centre for the Performing Arts (now the Hummingbird Centre), Bell Canada, the Ontario government at Queen's Park and Carleton University, where his mural PEACE was unveiled by Buckminster Fuller.  Despite the fame associated with the mural work, he met with considerable success as an easel painter, and was known to have described himself "first a painter, with a flair for murals."

In keeping with his penchant for constant travel and cultural exchange, Wilson did  work that was well received overseas, especially in France and Italy.  In 1961, Wilson was invited by the French government to mount a one-man exhibition in the Paris gallery of his choosing, and in 1981 he was asked to paint a self-portrait for the permanent collection at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  He regarded the Uffizi commission as the highest honour he had received in his long career as a painter.

On his return he was discouraged when he discovered that, despite a lifetime of research and experimentation, his contributions to Canadian art (introduction of new media, advanced painting techniques and fresh outlooks and his earlier support of the Gallery), none of the 16 works that the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) possessed were hanging in the Gallery.  The situation with the A.G.O. began while it was under the directorship of W. Withrow, and continued despite York being widely acclaimed internationally.  He was further disappointed when, despite requests from members of the A.G.O. Canadian Buying Committee, (of which York had been a member), for his re-integration, he was not invited to rejoin the Committee after his absences abroad. York is only mentioned as a co-exhibitor with Jack Bush in a recent book on Canadian Art by the Chief Curator of the A.G.O.

York Wilson died in 1984 at the age of 76.


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