Thumbnail-size images of copyrighted artworks are displayed under fair use, in accordance with guidelines recommended by the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, published by the College Art Association in February 2015.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Artist John Wilson (American, 1922–2015)


Framed: 74 x 74 cm (29 1/8 x 29 1/8 in.) Sheet: 55.7 x 52.9 cm (21 15/16 x 20 13/16 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Black and white pastel on cream Japanese paper

Not On View


Americas, Contemporary Art, Prints and Drawings



John Wilson (1922–2015) endeavored to “use shapes, lines, and colors like Dr. King used words, to change how people looked at others who were different from them.”

In 1985, Wilson was awarded a commission from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a bronze bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. It was to be the first representation of an African American in the Capitol Rotunda. At the time, Wilson was nearing retirement from a twenty-year career as professor of drawing at Boston University (where King had received a Ph.D. in Theology in 1955). The panel that selected Wilson was chaired by Edmund Barry Gaither, director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury. Coretta Scott King was an advisor.

Before arriving in 1986 to deliver the bust, wrapped in blankets in the back of his Mazda, Wilson had not been to the U.S. Capitol. He told the Boston Globe, “It alienated me. I never felt part of it. But when I delivered the sculpture, that changed. I felt, a piece of me is in that building.”

Some twenty years later, in 2002, the Smithsonian Institution requested the inclusion of this drawing in a major exhibition on King’s legacy that would travel to six venues over the course of two years. Because of its vulnerability to light exposure, the drawing could only be lent to the first venue, but Wilson agreed to make a new, monumental etched portrait based on the drawing, that could travel in its place. He collaborated on this project with master printer James Stroud at Center Street Studio in Milton, Massachusetts. The MFA purchased an impression of the completed print, along with the copper printing plate and nineteen unique working proofs. Together, they provide a glimpse into Wilson’s working process, as he sought to replicate in acid on copper what he’d achieved with such facility in pastel on paper.

In this sensitive portrayal, Wilson aimed to create an idealization of King, rather than a photographic likeness, in order to better convey his universal significance. King’s head is carefully modeled, while the torso remains flat and schematic. Wilson’s use of vertical and horizontal lines to divide the composition suggests both a Christian martyr’s cross and the crosshairs of the assassin’s rifle.


In black pastel, l.r.: (c) John Wilson 1985


1997, sold by the artist to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 25, 1997)

Credit Line

Richard Florsheim Art Fund and Anonymous Gift


© John Wilson/Licensed by VAGA, New York , NY