Arthur Wesley Dow 1857 —1922
IF one person could be said to have changed the course of American art, it would be Arthur Wesley Dow.
Dow taught at major American arts training institutions for 30 years including Teachers College, Columbia University; the Art Students League of New York; Pratt Institute; and his own Ipswich Summer School of Art. His ideas were quite revolutionary for the period, he taught that rather than copying nature, art should be created by elements of the composition, like line, mass and color. His ideas were published in the 1899 book Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers. Dow taught his methods through the disciplines of pottery, design, photography, painting, and printmaking with equal intensity. He taught many of America's leading artists and craftspeople, including Georgia O'Keeffe and Max Weber; printmaker Pedro de Lemos; photographers Alvin Langdon Coburn and Gertrude Käsebier; ceramicist Adelaide Alsop Robineau; Newcomb and Overbeck potteries; and the Byrdcliffe Colony, Woodstock, New York. His converts were many and his methods gave form and direction to American Modernist thought.
The significance of Arthur Wesley Dow as an artist and teacher is becoming increasingly apparent. A champion of fine craftsmanship in a wide variety of art media, Dow was a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts revival that became prominent in America at in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He advocated principles of pure design and promoted the creation of handmade rather than machine made objects. Dow also played an important role in American art as his work bridged the gap between Eastern and Western art. Applying principles of Oriental design to depictions of commonplace locales, Dow created works that wee ahead of their time, anticipating the East/West synthesis that would be sought by modernist artists as the twentieth century progressed.
Born in Ipswich, Massachusetts into an old, established New England family, Dow received his first art training in 1880 from Anna K Freeland of Worcester, Massachusetts. The following year, Dow continued his studies in Boston with James M Stone, a former student of Frank Duveneck and Gustave Bougereau. In October 1884, Dow followed the path of many native painters of his era, and departed for Paris. In the French capital, he enrolled at the Academie Julian where his instructors were Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. Among his fellow students were John Henry Twachtman, Willard Metcalf, and Edmund Tarbell. While abroad, Dow spent his summers in Pont Aven, Brittany, in the company of the Americans, Benjamin Harrison, Arthur Hoeber and Charles Lazar.
Dow was inspired by the aesthetics of East Asian art as well as by the British Arts & Crafts movement championed by William Morris in the mid-nineteenth century. The latter stressed the fine quality of the hand-wrought object; workshops, art colonies, and art classes emphasizing these ideals proliferated throughout the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, offering classes in every medium with equal emphasis. Dow championed the Arts & Crafts aesthetic and never considered crafts inferior to fine arts. He taught his students to appreciate the elegance of design that was based on nature but never replicated it, placing precedence on no one particular technique over any other, as long as the final result was beautiful.
Dow returned to America in 1887. A year later, the first solo exhibition of his work was held at the J. Eastman Chase Gallery I Boston. After spending another summer in Pont-Aven, Dow settled in Ipswich in 1889 and began to hold private art classes. Soon, however, he moved to Boston, where he became interested in Egyptian and Aztec artifacts, which he saw at the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts. At the same time, he began to study the prints of the Japanese artist, Hokusai. He sought out the curator of Japanese art at the Museum, Ernest Fenollosa, who shared his view that art should be both pictorial and decorative and introduced him to the other masters of Sumi ink painting and woodblock techniques. Soon after meeting Fenellosa, Dow developed a method for making woodcuts that reflected his study of Japanese techniques. He found the subjects for his prints mainly on Boston's North Shore, Which he felt were well suited to the Japanese-inspired appreciation of nature that he sought to express.
In 1893, Dow was appointed assistant curator of the Japanese collection at the Museum of Fine Arts under Fenellosa. Two years later, he gave a lecture outlining his ideas on Japanese art, which became the basis for his popular teaching manual, entitled Composition, which was published in 1899. As this text was used by public schools, it served to disseminate Dow's ideas broadly. Dow later wrote addition al books on design including Theory and Practice of Teaching Art and Constructive Art Teaching. Dow also had an active teaching career. He taught first at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, then at the Art Students League in New York and, finally, at Columbia University's Teachers College. In his teaching, Dow emphasized abstract concepts of line, notan (chiaroscuro) and color in order to arrive at a synthesis of eastern and western thought. His famous pupils, Max Weber and Georgia O'Keeffe, carried his methods even further into abstraction.
After 1900 Dow maintained a studio in his native Ipswich and conducted summer classes there. The nearby marshes and the area of Bayberry Hill were frequent subjects of his landscapes. His work in print mediums took up most of his time during the first decade of the century but, when he returned to oils in 1907, he began to experiment with a brighter palette and more expressive brushwork.
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