Click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Edwin Dickinson

The Fossil Hunters, 1928, Edwin Dickinson
Edwin Dickinson Self-portrait, 1950
What would you do? You've worked months on a major painting; submitted it to a major competition; had it accepted for display. Then when the big night comes, you attend the show's opening, only to find your much beloved painting displayed sideways. What do you do? That was the quandary facing Edwin Dickinson in 1928 as he stood in the midst of the Carnegie International (about the most prestigious art competition in the country) and gazed forlornly at his massive, 6 foot by 8 foot painting, The Fossil Hunters (above). A year later, in an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, it happened again. However, this time, Dickinson's outrage quickly turns to dismay when he found his much maligned (and misaligned) work has won a prize. What did Dickinson do? (Check at the bottom to see.)

Only a very dedicated, or very stupid
artists paints outside in the winter.
If anyone ever refers to you as a "painter's painter," you might not want to smack them in the mouth, but, it's okay to cringe a little. Such a designation means that, while other artists might admire your work, the general public probably doesn't. That, too, was the dilemma of Edwin Dickinson. He was a dead serious painter born in the Finger Lakes region of upper New York in 1891. He grew up in Buffalo. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was twelve, his brother committed suicide ten years later. His original intend was to become a minister. Two attempts to pass the U.S. Naval Academy entrance exam ended in failure. Thus, his becoming an artist was something of default decision as Dickinson began classes at New York's Art Students League in 1911 under the renown tutelage of William Merritt Chase.

A landscape study dating from Dickinson's time with Hawthorne.
After interning and then summering for several years on Cape Cod with Charles W. Hawthorne, Dickinson ended up teaching back in his hometown of Buffalo then later working as a telegrapher in New York City. WW I found Dickson serving in the navy. He and fellow artist, Herbert Grosebeck, planned to tour Europe together after the war. Groseback was sent to France as an infantryman. He was killed in the Argonne Forest fighting. Deeply saddened by the loss of his friend, Dickinson nonetheless made it to Europe where he visited his friend's grave while studying in France and Spain. Still grieving, Dickinson is said to have been deeply moved by El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz.

An Anniversary, 1920-21, Edwin Dickinson--starving artist art.
Dickinson returned to the United States around 1920 to face years of poverty as he struggled to sell his work and gain portrait commissions. As seen in his An Anniversary (above) from 1920-21, Dickinson's trip to Europe had changed his style. And, as so many artist during this time found as they flocked to Europe, then flocked back home again, America was still locked into Regional Realism of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, not ready for European Modernism. Around 1924, the money simply ran out. Two major portrait commission came his way only to be rejected when finished. He had an agent but even at that, only a few of his drawings and landscapes managed to sell. Around the time of the Fossil Hunters debacle, Dickinson married Francis "Pat" Foley (below, right).
Frances Foley, 1927, Edwin Dickinson
Cello Player, 1924, Edwin Dickinson
If things were bad during the "roaring twenties," they quickly grew worse during the desperate thirties when even the wealthy had little money to spend on art. It might be stretching things to say Dickinson and his wife were saved from starvation by the PWA artists program, but not far from the truth. Still, Dickinson persisted. He continued to paint, spending months at a time perfecting major works of dark, deeply troubled, gray Expressionism. In the end, these works got him accepted in major exhibitions and eventually brought him some degree of success, enough, at least, to allow him to once more travel, study, and paint in Europe during the late 1930s...until Hitler put an end to that sojourn.

Dickinson, out of necessity, was as much a teacher as painter.
During the war Dickinson continued painting large-scale "masterpiece" type paintings. His agent dropped him because he failed to generate lesser, more salable work, and thus lesser and lesser sales commissions. However, with all the younger school teachers off fighting the war, Dickinson was able to obtain a position as a high school art instructor and later as an instructor at the Cooper Union and the Art Studens League while doing freelance commercial work to fill his lunch pail. His drawings of major world leaders found their way to major publications here and overseas. Fortunately, after the war, the New York art scene began to change in his favor. Major donors were purchasing his works and giving them to museums. His Ruin at Daphne (bottom, 1953) went to the Met while Fossil Hunters (top) ended up in the Whitney. His Cello Player (above, left, 1924) was purchased by the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Abstract Expressionism made his work fashionable. However such acclaim came almost too late, By 1963, Dickinson was showing symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease. No longer able to paint, he lingered on until 1978.

The Ruin at Daphne, 1953, Edwin Dickinson


P.S. Dickinson complained, but in the end, he let them hang The Fossil Hunters any way they liked.

No comments:

Post a Comment