The Artists Mother 1937

Skilfully composed of contrasts of light and dark, punctuated by three brilliant red highlights, the artist’s mother is a sober, unadorned image, somewhat as we suspect the sitter’s personality to be. She looks out at her son, a little warily, sitting stiffly, conscious of being observed. Dressed in her Sunday best with silk blouse and fur-trimmed coat, she is an unremarkable middle-aged woman, a respectable and upright member of the community and most probably, like her son, a devout Seventh Day Adventist. With hat on and gloves and umbrella in hand she appears as if ready to go out but delayed by her son’s request to pose for him. It is this quality, beyond the meticulous realism with which it is painted, which gives the work its particular photographic quality, of a moment captured rather than the many sittings which would have gone into painting this portrait.

Wilson gives us few clues as to the subject, the wedding band and poppy hinting at the intersection between personal and national narratives. More telling is the way in which Wilson has composed the portrait so that his mother’s form takes up almost the entire canvas. Placed centrally against a neutral background there is nothing in the picture except her, and it is easy to speculate that in his life Wilson accorded his mother the same central importance.

Madeline Wilson (née Hawkes) was born in Wagga Wagga in 1880 and married in 1908. She was supportive of her son’s ambition to become an artist and, while mothers can make convenient models, it is also likely indicative of their closeness that Wilson painted his mother several times. She is the central figure in Domestic Interior 1935, and the subject of his Archibald Prize entries in 1942, The artist’s mother c 1942 (NRAG) and in 1944, The painter’s mother c 1944 (NGV). Madeline Wilson died in 1950, surviving her son by four years.