AMERICAN ARTIST, magazine, page 3 (reprinted with permission)
other for several years. As they said, I was one of the highest-paid illustrators in the world. For an all-over job you could get, what was typical, a thousand. I was getting 2600 or 2800 and went up to three thousand. But then, although I did get a high price for a single picture, the point was that if you could turn them out fast enough, you could make a lot of money. I didn't. I took two or three weeks and finally slowed down to a month a picture. I preferred that, because I wanted to learn. That's my great interest."
Another time-demanding factor was the fact that illustration meant reading as well as painting, and ominously for him, it was a heavy burden for his eyes. Wilson always read each story completely to select the scene to illustrate, and magazine stories were long in those days. Besides, an illustration was a big oil, and that meant lots of hours late at night. As Wilson says, "It was hard work. I worked till two in the morning. Most everybody did. I was not exceptional."
All seemed well in 1947 when he spoke for Cosmopolitan at the annual spring lecture held by the Society of Illustrators. He is described in the program as a man who "relaxes by tinkering with pianos, teaching his four-year-old daughter the care and feeding of grease paint-and illustrating." This was prologue to the point that "He has also been covetously eyeing the glamorous life illustrators are supposed to lead. Now, if he could only uncover some way of stopping illustrating long enough to give it a whirl..." Unhappily, that turned out to be not only an accolade but a portent.
Perhaps because by now he has got past it, Wilson can talk about what happened without pausing for emphasis or any conscious sense of drama. He says simply, "I was doing a story for Gallico, and this eye just blacked right out." He explains in retrospect, "It was an eye infection, but at first they didn't know that. Well, it scares you, but it's also a sign when things like that happen that they're too big for you to fight. Takes you a minute to realize, so you're not as upset as you might be."
What had struck him was not the total, continuous oblivion of blindness but a maddeningly intermittent, unpredictable weakness, of a gravity that only became clear as he contended with it. So much was not evident to begin with. He had a margin of time, because by then he was working a year ahead, with everything already scheduled. His
first step was a try at getting well. He recalls,
"Hearst took me to the best people; I was treated royally. So I took a year off, stayed completely away from painting, and then I tried to go back to work. I thought by then I could see well enough, but I couldn't."
It was a gradual, regretful retreat. The Wilsons tried living a year in France and, among other things, tried, too, the quiet in the country. But, as Wilson sums it up, "Finally it just got to be too much, and my eyes wouldn't focus right. I went through a very hard spell with it for a time."
In the meantime another malaise was setting in: the decline of fiction in the magazines. Finally, there was nothing left to stay for in New York. So in 1956 the Wilsons moved to Arizona. Although Wilson was still blacking out every two or three weeks, the Wilsons had not chosen Arizona for the sake of Mortimer's health: they thought the state's dry air and sun might benefit their daughter, and they wanted to be near her boarding school there.
Before long they had build the house in Tubac, where they calculated that with the lowered cost of living there, compared to New York, the funds still left from illustrating would last them for ten years. Jean, an accomplished painter of still lifes in her own right, welcomed the chance to develop, and that became a mainstay; although the matter was must less simple for Mortimer. He had come to realize that illustration had played out for him as well as for the public, that in any case he had learned from it what he could. It was time to go back to painting for its own sake.
Interestingly, the change was not so great as it might have been. He was, after all, an alumnus of The Art Student's League, where he had studied painting as a fine art and not a vocation-as one aspect of a larger whole. Wilson says now: "Illustration was always a man and a pretty girl, and I saw so many pretty girls I thought I'd go crazy." He adds, "
Those were artificial people."
There was much else that he wanted to develop. As he puts it, "I spent my time with the eye stuff, and I studied some things I thought I'd never learn" — such as the nature of the baroque sources which he found increasingly important in the understanding of his own art. They—the baroque silver objects—exemplify the epitome of tonal variation to Wilson and force a painter to key the other objects in a painting in relationship
to them. He proceeded slowly, because of the reluctant rate at which his eyes were healing.
He produced few paintings, and it was not till the mid-60s that his work began to make gallery appearances. Often when he painted a portrait he would, for his own pleasure, paint the subject a second time, creating a setting built to the measure of the role that Wilson cast him for. The reality of these paintings as well as their painterly quality began to interest an audience. From big dark planes to the small, high-keyed differences, to Wilson these differences in the value scale are like chords. He says, "Something of the quality of music makes painting. Take El Primo by Valazquez. When you look at it, the intervals between tones are just like a set of steps. You can feel the progression hit you like some magnificent thing in Wagner. And the contrast! Contrast is the true scale. The light is a sequence, but the darks are scattered, and where the darks meet the light is your point of interest, and your degree of contrast creates a true order of interest."
Wilson had finally found his true home and his excitement. Visible in his face when he talks about painting, it can be seen in his paintings, too. It took nearly a decade before he could turn out very much of that, but eventually his lush, loose, romantic paintings won buyers in numbers that entitled him to call his sales an income so that now, not quite 20 years since he left New York, Wilson has been painting for an annual gallery show for several years. In these the dominant impression is a human one. Character as a theme shines in his canvases: a sympathy with people, a willingness to see their best traits.
But there are also the still lifes in which rich, baroque surfaces are a subject in themselves: the skin of fruit; the gleam from glass, silver, and polished wood. A lovely old tureen is offset with flowers, or a silver fish on a silver platter is portrayed in a whole range of grays combined with a painted slice of lemon to accent all this harmony, as in a Dutch breakfast piece.
After these years of learning and hard-won accomplishment lived through two times, Wilson, now in his 60s, says, "It's fun to do this. There's so much excitement ahead! Now that I don't have to, I love to paint and paint very much, and when I get to paint a head, I'm tickled to death. That's the whole point. What is there if you don't entertain people, give them some of your excitement back?"
What there is for the artist seems to be the elixir of youth, as he continues to look ahead and his painting deepens and grows.