Skip to content

Peter Williams in the studio.

For more than 40 years Williams has chronicled current and historical events, interspersing pictorial narratives with personal anecdotes and fictional characters in order to create paintings about the diverse experiences of Black Americans. With boldness and humor, he tackles the darkest of subjects including, but not limited to, police brutality, lynching, slavery, mass incarceration, and other realms of racial oppression. Williams uses cultural criticism to form new creation myths, retelling the history of America from fresh and cosmic perspectives.

Peter Williams lives in Wilmington, DE and is Senior Professor in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Delaware. He earned his MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art and his BFA from Minneapolis College of Art and Design. His paintings are held in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Detroit Institute of Arts, MI; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington; Howard University, Washington DC; Wayne State University, Detroit: Davis Museum at Wellesley College, MA; CCH Pounder Collection, New Orleans; Pizzuti Collection, Columbus, OH; the Mott-Warsh Collection in Flint, MI; The Bunker/Beth Rudin DeWoody Collection, Palm Beach; Jorge Perez Collection, Miami; Bill and Christy Gautreaux, Kansas City; and the McEvoy Collection, San Francisco, among others.

Peter Williams, The Death of George Floyd (triptych)

Peter Williams
George Floyd Triptych, 2020
Oil on canvas
 

Peter Williams The Arrest of George Floyd oil painting, 2020

Peter Williams
The Arrest of George Floyd, 2020
Oil on canvas
60 x 48 in.

Peter Williams, The Death of George Floyd oil painting, 2020

Peter Williams
The Death of George Floyd, 2020
Oil on canvas
48 x 60 in.

Peter Williams The Burial of George Floyd, 2020

Peter Williams
The Burial of George Floyd, 2020
Oil on canvas
48 x 60 in.

THE ARREST OF GEORGE FLOYD (left panel) depicts the arrest of George Floyd over the alleged use of a counterfeit 20-dollar bill. Floyd was arrested outside a convenience store in Minneapolis, Minnesota, taken into custody and wrestled to the ground by four policemen, one of whom kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, killing him. The painting is a combination of religious symbolism and the realism of the arrest. It depicts the laying of hands all over Floyd’s body which is set against a series of brightly colored “stained glass” windows that give way to prison bars. The figure of Floyd is framed by large purple and blue stripes that suggest wings, much like those of an angel, and above his head is a church symbolizing his salvation.  Along the center right and left sides of the painting Williams has inserted prison scenes, cryptic reminders of the omnipresent fear of police entrapment whose deeper meaning he leaves up to the viewer to decipher.

THE DEATH OF GEORGE FLOYD (center panel) was the first painting that Peter Williams created in this triptych and it was an immediate response to the horrific event he saw on video which “hit me like a hammer.” (“His death would be ordinary but for the video.”)  To frame and direct the eye, Williams used two strong stripes of color painted in a light red and a medium yellow to create and connect divisions in the work.  Williams states that the “composition of stripes represent the hegemony of corporate thinking and the symbols of linear thinking that comes from formalism,” which combines “the organic quality of violence/race, justice and what was broadly avoided in modernist art—content.”  Most of the space within the painting is taken up by Floyd’s body, framed within sections in the composition that allowed Williams to create a storyboard of highly symbolic imagery: three glaring blue eyes, a pointed ear piggy-cop, a close-up of Floyd’s upper body pinned down by the cop’s knee, a Christian cross marked “GOD” crowning his head, Floyd’s vital organs (visible as if we’re viewing his autopsy), a row of ten flush-faced white police officer heads in blue caps, and tattoo-like text emblazoned on his body proclaiming his love for his mother and father, and several racial slurs reflecting the divisive state our current situation. 

THE BURIAL OF GEORGE FLOYD (right panel) was influenced by El Greco’s painting “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz,” a masterpiece of Western Art that Williams calls a “delicious opera of scenes” depicting the burial of Count Don Gonzalo Ruiz de Toledo and his ascent to the holy spirit. In Williams’s painting, the scene is simplified and, as in El Greco’s version, the composition is divided into two sections—"above and below”—heaven and earth.  Below, the body of Floyd is seen lying in a coffin, his neck deeply bound by the knee of the cop; above, a silhouette of a figure surrounded by rays of light. Separating the two figures is the text “My Body is Your Fertile Lie.”  The meaning of this inscription is both ambiguous and fact—Floyd lays in his coffin, someday to become fertilizer (“Fertile Lie”). The phrase is a pointed allusion to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and a macabre legend that depicts large numbers of dead ground up for use as fertilizer. He has also shifted his typically bright color palette to one that is significantly darker and more somber.

In all three paintings Williams has placed an emphasis on Floyd’s Christian cross, in part to express what his church meant to him personally and his transformation into a symbol of nobility and salvation to be venerated by the community. It’s also noteworthy that in all three paintings Williams engages the idea of the legend and the machinations that are at play in order to create a very intense and deeply moving experience.

Back To Top