Floyd Wilson Biography
By Mark Humpal
Floyd Wilson was born on March 20, 1888 in St. Peter, Minnesota, the second youngest of nine children born to Peter and Karen Marya Wilson. Raised on a 200 acre farm, his chores included riding horses to herd cows, beginning at age 5. Having scarce time to pursue his budding talent in drawing, he left home at age 15 to live in Minneapolis with his aunt, Julia King. In 1905, he entered formal art studies at the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts, studying there primarily with Robert Koehler and Gustav von Schlegell. A year later he was living on his own while continuing to pursue his art studies, and supported himself with various jobs including driving an ambulance, tending bar, and waiting tables. During the 1906-1907 school year he won the art school’s Hinkle Scholarship. A Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts Bulletin from 1907 featured two of his drawings: a portrait and a landscape and went on to note:
“From the first he showed decided originality, which found more satisfactory expression in his composition and sketches than in the more severe demands of drawing from the cast and life. Young Wilson possesses the true artistic temperament, which allows no difficulties to cool his ardor and trust to ultimate success by hard work.”
Later in 1907, Wilson entered two paintings in the Minnesota State Art Society annual exhibition (in the student competition), Illustration and Study of a Boy. In the same exhibit the following year, he entered another painting, Still Life.
In the autumn of 1908 at age 19, Wilson and a few other Minneapolis art school students, including Carl Walters and Karl Koch, ventured to New York to study at the Henri School of Art (formerly William Merritt Chase’s New York School of Art) under Robert Henri. Wilson found his attitude toward art reinforced by Henri, who believed rigid academic training was secondary to encouraging individual artistic expression. By early 1909, Wilson was on his way to Paris to study at Academie Colarossi. Shortly after his arrival, his money was stolen and the young artist found himself in desperate straits in an unfamiliar foreign country. Unable to continue his studies in Paris, he prevailed on family in Minnesota to send funds for his passage back to America in April of 1909. Despite his unfortunate experience in France, he did acquire valuable experiences abroad. He arrived in St. John, New Brunswick and from there attempted (apparently successful) to contact his friend Carl Walters in New York. Walters had mentioned he was interested in traveling north along the New England coast to Maine on a sketching trip and Wilson hoped to join him there, where they planned to eventually make their way back to New York City with a stop in Boston. Wilson settled in Portland, Maine for a time and there worked in a bakery, reporting for work at 5 in the morning, a schedule which left him time to paint in the afternoon.
Details of Wilson’s travels and art activities are unclear from this point in 1909 until his travel, with Walters, to the west coast. For an undetermined length of time during this period, both Wilson and Walters returned to Minneapolis where they shared a studio, and there exist exhibition records in 1910 for both artists having shown work in Minneapolis. Wilson exhibited Peaks Island, a Maine subject, during this time. The two artists road the rails west and are known to have visited Victoria, B.C. and San Francisco. Walters apparently attempted to secure a teaching position in Victoria, but was unsuccessful. By late summer of 1912, Wilson, along with Walters and his wife Helen, arrived in Portland, Oregon. Wilson and Walters together painted urban scenes, circus scenes, and views of activities along Portland’s waterfront on the Willamette River. A search for more varied action subjects took Wilson to the Pendleton Round-up, where he sketched the colorful festivities and animals. By 1913 Wilson began to exhibit many of his small post-impressionist oil paintings locally and began to receive acclaim for the high level of his achievement. Along with Carl Walters and Ellen Ravenscroft, he showed a small collection of works done recently at the Oregon coast in a show at the Neahkahnie Tavern. He entered five oils for exhibit in the Society of Oregon Artists show in 1913, and soon came to the attention of CES Wood who was in his own right an accomplished artist who painted with Childe Hassam in 1904 and 1908, as well as a prominent arbiter of artistic taste in Portland. In a letter to Wilson in November of 1913, in which he enclosed payment for one of Wilson’s small oils, Wood wrote:
My dear Wilson, Find enclosed $25. for your very charming little sketch of The Horse Trader – If I were rich – I’d get a lot of these little panels and group them as the decoration for a small room…
The following two years he exhibited recent work at the Portland Art Museum. During April of 1915 he showed 16 oils and pastels in a critically acclaimed two-man exhibit there with Carl Walters. In January of 1915, he was notified that his pastel Chinatown was accepted for exhibit in the Fine Arts building at San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition. Along with his friend Harry Wentz, Wilson was the only other Oregon artist to hold this distinction. Additionally, he exhibited work in the Oregon Art Room at PPIE. He showed three pastels at the Artists of the Pacific Northwest exhibition held under the auspices of the Seattle Fine Arts Society in early October of 1915. A review in the Seattle press stated:
Mr. Wilson has 3 strong pastels, all of which are decorative and worthy of serious attention. His Crossing the Bridge makes excellent use of the picturesque street material which abounds in Portland.
By autumn of 1915 Wilson left for San Francisco to visit the exposition and apparently settled there for about a year. During his time there he contributed 6 cover illustrations (cartoons) to Alexander Berkman’s The Blast, an anarchist and labor union newspaper. Wilson’s bold and powerful drawings, printed from March to July of 1916, elicited praise from readers as well as from Berkman, the newspaper’s editor. In a July 15, 1916 letter to Wilson, Berkman writes:
Now, as to cartoons, I want to tell you, Floyd, our readers appreciate your work. I get many letters praising it. The other day I had a letter from a girl in the East about it, an artist girl who used to live in Portland. I forget her name. I’ll look it up. Oh, yes, now I got it; it is Louise Bryant (Provincetown, Mass.) She thinks your work splendid. And she is right.
By August of 1916, Wilson had traveled to Los Angeles, where he contacted a friend and fellow Henri student John Christopher Smith. Smith’s brightly colored early impressionist works indicate the stylistic affinity the two men had for each other’s work. Wilson joined Smith in his decorating business, living in Los Angeles until he received word from Minnesota that his mother was gravely ill. He returned to the family farm in St. Peter where his mother died within a week of his return. He decided to stay on the farm and managed to find time to paint in addition to his farm chores. Wilson is known to have exhibited work during 1917 in Minneapolis. He resided in St. Peter until he was inducted into the army (as a conscientious objector) in mid-1918 to serve in World War I. The armistice was signed while Wilson was being transported to France with other new recruits. Nevertheless, the new troops were put to work in Brest, France, where Wilson’s only active duty essentially entailed many days wading in deep mud. He fell ill during this time with the second phase of the influenza epidemic, but managed to recover. He apparently developed lasting physical problems secondary to the flu and upon his return to the farm in St. Peter, he found himself lacking the stamina to do the hard work required of him. Consequently, he obtained benefits from the Veteran’s Administration in order to receive vocational rehabilitation training as a silversmith at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he studied under Carl Hamann. Arriving in New York in March of 1920, Wilson found a room in Greenwich Village and soon found himself once more in the company of other artists including Carl and Helen Walters, Larry (W.L.) Barnes, Harry Gottlieb, and Arnold and Lucille Blanch. Shortly after his arrival in New York, he re-established contact by mail with Portland artist Dorothy Gilbert, and the two kindled their friendship from 5 years earlier in Portland into a romance culminating in marriage in early 1921. Never wanting to settle permanently in New York City, Wilson, along with Gottlieb and the Blanches, investigated the possibility of moving to Hervey White’s Maverick art colony in Woodstock. Gottlieb and the Blanches, along with others, formed the nucleus of the Maverick visual artist’s colony in the early 1920s. Wilson visited the Woodstock area as early as 1921, as evidenced by the entry of his painting, The Maverick Festival, which, along with another oil entitled Apple Trees, he sent to Oregon to be shown at the Portland Art Museum in October of that year. While the Wilsons did move to the Maverick to live in one of White’s rustic cabins, they did so only seasonally and continued to maintain their apartment on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. By 1924, the Wilsons, now with daughter Mary born in 1922, bought a farm in Zena, just outside of Woodstock, where Floyd continued to paint, work as a metal craftsman, and raise farm animals. It appears that Wilson continued to enjoy the company of his fellow artists at the Maverick, and sometimes shared fees for models with the Maverick artists. However, he refrained from any extensive promotion of his work, though he did exhibit at times over the following 15 years. This attitude was explained by his wife, Dorothy:
It was Floyd’s idea to have the farm, as he wanted to make a living and paint, and hated the idea of competing and getting ahead and cultivating the important people. He felt unable to talk about art, for one thing.
After the Wilsons’ establishment of residence in the Woodstock area, he exhibited recent metalwork creations in a craft exhibition held at the Woodstock Art Gallery in mid-1924. Notice and review of the show appeared in Woodstock’s art colony magazine, The Hue and Cry:
Three pieces of excellent silver work, two bowls and a creamer, executed by Floyd Wilson also deserved to be mentioned. We regret that Mr. Wilson is not a member of the Woodstock Colony, though we hope he will be identified with us before the Fall exhibit is held.
From the time of his arrival in Woodstock, and perhaps a short time before while in New York City, Wilson’s artistic style underwent a dramatic transformation. The bright palette, choppy brushwork, and heavy impasto of his work from the 1910s gave way to a flatter, modernist approach widely favored and interpreted by many of the Maverick artists, who drew influences from the emerging trends in modernism which eventually took hold in the wake of the Armory Show in 1913. Gone was Wilson’s bright, saturated color, replaced by an earthier, verdant palette. His subject matter changed as well, from the Ashcan school urban subjects to rural landscapes of the local environment; though he seemed to always manage to work in evidence of human existence in the form of homes and buildings. His work in pastel was also not immune to this change in approach. Where his earlier pastels are notable for their fresh, broken lines, his later work in this medium is notable for a distinct flatness in the picture plane as well as solid planes of color, elements found in Japanese woodblock prints which influenced many American artists around this time. Wilson’s lifelong love of animals, however, found continuous expression in his pastels, whether they were the animals on his own farm, horses at auction, or circus animals. He also maintained an interest in portraiture and was accomplished in this vein throughout his career.
Wilson continued to send work for exhibit periodically and is known to have had shows at various galleries in Woodstock and galleries such as Dudensing, Marie Sterner, Marie Harriman, and Kraushaar in New York City. He exhibited a pastel, Circus Parade in the 1929 Exhibition of Paintings by Contemporary American Artists, a show that originated in Portland and traveled to Los Angeles and Seattle. His last known formal exhibit of work was at the short lived Sawkill Gallery in Woodstock in 1936.
Wilson was hospitalized on March 13, 1945 at Middletown State Hospital. He was diagnosed with manic depression, manic type. Events precipitating his hospitalization are sketchy and there were no previous admissions for mental illness known. After 25 days, he died in the hospital infirmary early in the morning of March 31, 1945. The cause of death listed on his death certificate is listed as “Manic-Depressive Psychosis, Manic Type, with exhaustion.” Curiously, no physical ailments were listed. His wife, Dorothy Gilbert Wilson lived to be 98 years old and continued to paint and exhibit into her 90s.
My appreciation to Mary Wilson, daughter of the artist; Jane Howell, the artist’s granddaughter; James Gloege, grandnephew of the artist, and the Archives of the Woodstock Art Association Museum for valuable source material used in compiling this biography.