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Arthur Wesley Dow

Arthur Wesley Dow: Arthur Wesley Dow

Arthur Wesley Dow

American

1857 - 1922

Perhaps Arthur Wesley Dow’s greatest legacy is not necessarily as one of America’s most distinguished artists but instead as one of America’s most distinguished art teachers.

Dow taught at major art institutes for 30 years, including Columbia University’s Teachers College, the Arts Students League of New York, the Pratt Institute, and, from 1900 to 1907, at his own summer art school in Ipswich, Massachusetts. His 1899 book Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers was a primary text for art instruction for decades. Max Weber and Georgia O’Keeffe are among his most famous pupils.

He drew much of his success as a teacher from his commitment to being a student himself. He spent his life studying art of other cultures and time periods, exploring libraries and museums and eventually embarking on an around-the-world trip when he was nearly 50 years old.

Dow was born in 1857 in Ipswich, on the North Shore of Massachusetts, into an established New England family. He received his first art training under Anna K. Freeland and James M. Stone, and in 1884 he moved to Paris, where he enrolled in at the Académie Julian. Finding inspiration in neither formal instruction nor the contemporary work of the French modernists, he returned to Massachusetts in 1889.

Around this time Dow became fascinated by the prints of Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai that were in the collection of the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts. Dow befriended the museum’s Japanese art curator Ernest Fenollosa, who shared his belief that art should be both pictorial and decorative. Under Fenollosa’s tutelage, Dow began experimenting with his own woodblock prints, applying the Eastern aesthetic for beauty and composition to commonplace scenes of his native North Shore. Dow was appointed assistant curator of the Japanese collection at the museum in 1893, and in 1895 he gave a seminal lecture outlining his ideas on Japanese art.

This lecture would later become the basis for Composition, in which Dow outlined an innovative method for teaching students to create art based on, as he wrote, the “putting together of lines, masses and colors to make a harmony”. He advocated capturing the essence of reality, which differed drastically from conventional training rooted in “copying” reality.

Dow continued to develop and teach his principals at the Ipswich Summer School, which he founded around 1891. He attracted artists of all sorts – painters, potters, furniture craftsmen, textile makers – expanding his sphere of influence to all areas of American arts and crafts and becoming in the process a preeminent figure in the Arts and Crafts revival of the time. The school closed in 1907, but Dow would remain a highly sought-after teacher the rest of his life.

Despite teaching “radical” theories, in his own paintings, Dow remained relatively conservative, often capturing gentle landscapes surrounding Ipswich, although later canvases exhibited brighter colors and more aggressive brush strokes. His prints and photographs are more apt to convey progressive use of asymmetry, flatness and subtle tonality. His work achieved a good deal of popularity and he exhibited in shows across the country. Above all, he was interested in making works that were pleasing to the eye.

Both his work and his teachings played the important role of bridging Eastern and Western art, a concept that anticipated the modernism we would see later in the 20th Century. Historians are just now beginning to fully grasp the influence Dow had on American abstract art.

He died in New York on December l3, 1922. His work is represented in museums across the United States and in other public and private collections.

Last updated: February 5, 2013

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