Southampton's 20th Century Influencers: Jane Wilson, Artist of the Ethereal

Updated: Mar 11


Jane Wilson in 1960

Artist Jane Wilson, best known for he luminous landscapes hovering between abstraction and representation, once told an interviewer that the challenge she faced in her work was to capture on canvas “moments of strong sensation—moments of total physical experience e of the landscape, when weather just reaches out and sucks you in.” When you think about it, she added, trying to trigger those moments “with pigments of ground-up earth—it’s really very mysterious.” In the later years of her long career as a painter Wilson focused almost uniquely on triggering those moments of transcendence, when the weather activating her vast atmospheric skies is not just seen, but palpably felt.

An farm in Iowa

Born in 1924, Wilson grew up on a farm beneath the wide skies of the Iowa flatlands and spoke later of the “great weight of the sky and how it rests on the earth.” As an adult, she would gravitate to New York City when she and her husband John Jonas Gruen would be part of New York’s mind-century bohemian whirl. Then, when they bought a carriage house in Water Mill and began spending summers on eastern Long Island, the flat potato fields running right down to the sea reawakened her love of the uninterrupted landscape. And, like many another artist, she was struck by the area’s storied light.

New Road, 1933 by Grant Wood

The paintings inspired by the sky, sea, land and light around Water Mill are still far in the future in 1941 when Wilson enrolls at the age of 17 at the University of Iowa to study painting and art history. The art department at the university, previously led by the 1930s allegorical regionalist painter Grant Wood, was being revolutionized to expose students to what was going on in New York, including the first glimmerings of abstract Expressionism.

Meeresstrand, 1935 by Max Beckman & Pennsylvania Landscape, 1936 by Jackson Pollock

The Young Mother, 1944 by Philip Guston

The department head would travel to New York and bring back paintings ranging from the expressionist Max Beckmann to the upstart Jackson Pollock.

Another influence is the artist Philip Guston who is the university’s artist-in-residence from 1941 to 1945. A painter, he is also known for his drawings, murals and prints--and is, by the way, currently the subject of a major—but postponed—respective.

In the early 1940s Guston is in thrall to the early Renaissance Italian painter Piero Della Francesca and impresses Wilson with his seeming obliviousness to all but his art. “Here was this handsome hulk of a man,” she later related, “whose mind was so concentrated on his own reality that he didn’t seem so much a part of the daily world…His inner world took precedence over absolutely everything else.”

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels c. 1460-70 by Piero Della Francesca