I’m so glad I stumbled upon Paint Guide‘s Instagram post about American painter, Edwin Dickinson. After discovering his beautifully haunting paintings, I can safely say he is now one of my favorite artists. He is also a fellow Upstate New-Yorker like myself!
What immediately draws me to Dickinson’s work is the emotional quality, especially his psychologically-charged self-portraits, which portray the struggles of his life. I’m so excited to write about this painter and share some of my favorites of his work!
Here’s a little backstory. Dickinson was born on October 11, 1891, in Seneca Falls in the Finger Lake region of Upstate New York. His family then moved to Buffalo, New York in 1897. The dark, ominous tone of his paintings alludes to his mother’s death from tuberculosis in 1903, the suicide in 1913 of his older brother, his father’s remarriage in 1914 to a much younger woman, and the death of a close friend. Sheesh!
I love finding connections between artists I admire. I was pleased to learn Dickinson was a student of William Merritt Chase and Charles W. Hawthorne. He first met and studied with William Merritt Chase in 1911, after enrolling at the Art Students League. In the summers of 1912 and 1913, he stayed in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he studied with Charles W. Hawthorne, and continued there year-round from 1913 to the summer of 1916, working as Hawthorne’s assistant in 1914. It is evident that Hawthorne, who also studied under Chase, had a heavy influence on Dickinson’s work. Dickinson’s Self-Portrait of 1914 is what Hawthorne’s students called a “mudhead,” a back-lit figure built up in color patches, working outward from the center, rather than filling in contours.
In this painting, you can see Hawthorne’s method of using palette knives and fingers, “as if painting had been just invented.”
Like many artists, there were years of struggle. However, there were a few paintings that were awarded recognition early on such as Interior, which was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington in 1916 and three other major venues, and Old Ben and Mrs. Marks, which was shown in New York in 1917 and in the Luxembourg Museum in Paris in 1919.
Dickinson struggled to earn enough from his work to live, despite the financial support of a patron, Esther Hoyt Sawyer. In 1924, he hit rock bottom when he ran out of money from his parents’ inheritance. Moreover, he was unable to sell An Anniversary, a major painting on which he had worked steadily for thirteen months, and two commissioned portraits, one of his uncle, Charles Evans Hughes, and one of Charles D. Walcott, painted during an eight-week stay in Washington the previous year, were rejected. I found it fascinating to learn about Dickinson’s struggle. One doesn’t learn much about famous artists’ hardships, only their successes. In a way, it gives inspiring artists hope, knowing that someone like Dickinson with so much talent can also go through hard times. Basically, it makes me think, never give up!
The crisis was resolved in July 1924 when Esther’s husband arranged to pay Dickinson a monthly salary in exchange for the right to choose paintings of his equivalent in value. This arrangement continued for 21 years, ending only when Dickinson secured steady teaching jobs at the Art Students League and Cooper Union in 1945.
Between the years 1936 and 1942, Dickinson was exhibiting steadily at Passedoit Gallery in New York City. He also began selling more works. A donor purchased Ruin at Daphne and gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1955. The Whitney Museum of American Art purchased The Fossil Hunters in 1958, and in 1988 the M. H. de Young Museum purchased The Cello Player, the last major painting of Dickinson’s to enter a museum (and, along with Ruin at Daphne, one of the few Dickinson paintings usually on view to the general public). In 1948 he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate member and became a full Academician in 1950.
It is understandable why Dickinson has been referred to as “America’s best-known, underknown artist.” Here are some of my favorite paintings of his, all oil on canvas.
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