Preston Dickinson (1889-1930): Paintings and Drawings
There has not been a solo exhibition of Preston Dickinson's (1889-1930) works since the artist's traveling retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1979, and prior to that, a solo presentation at Zabriskie Gallery in 1974. During his short twenty-year career, Dickinson was a prolific artist who, in his drawings and paintings, exemplified and embraced early American Modernism.
William Preston Dickinson was born into a working class family as a third generation American in New York City. Following in the foot steps of his father (who died when Preston was only 11 years old), Dickinson went to art school. He studied at the Art Students League from 1906 to 1910, most notably with Ernest Lawson. From 1910 to 1914 in Paris, he enrolled at the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts and the Academie Julien, and exhibited in at least two Salon shows. During his time in Paris, Dickinson also gained exposure to Japanese prints, studied works at the Louvre, and looked at the contemporary paintings of such European artists as Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and most importantly, Paul Cezanne. Contrary to most assumptions, Dickinson neither saw the watershed 1913 International Armory Show in New York nor attended Alfred Stieglitz' first Cezanne exhibition.
After having received what he considered his "real education" in France, Dickinson returned to New York and was subsequently included in a group show at the recently opened Daniel Gallery. Charles Daniel established a roster of vanguard artists that included, among others: Charles Demuth, Stuart Davis, William Glackens, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, John Marin, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and William Zorach.
In the 1920s, all non-academic American Art was labeled Cubism. Artists working in this "style" were subsequently re-classified as the Immaculates (1925), Cubist-Realists (1946), and finally, Precisionists (1960). These artists, who never actually formed a group, included Sheeler and Demuth, Louis Lozowick, Georgia O'Keeffe, and George Ault, to name a few. They were linked together by critics based on a loose-knit style of painting that depicted American industrial and urban scenes in a precise and ordered manner, simplifying the pictorial elements to their basic "cubist," geometric forms.
Unfortunately, the term Precisionism today conjures up an aesthetic of "Sheeleresque" still life and industrial building imagery which Dickinson did not emulate, but anticipated. Dickinson produced comparable vanguard works in the 1920s that often predate the iconic later works of Sheeler, Demuth, O'Keeffe, and others. Works like Table Top Still Life: Flowers and Book (28), c. 1924, have a delicate elegance and innate sense of static energy that seemingly foreshadow Sheeler's "Americana" or Shaker imagery of patterned interiors from 1931 to 1934.
Because he seldom inscribed and dated works, combined with Dickinson's own stylistic experimentation and scarcity of historical records and references, it is often difficult to firmly establish a chronological order for Dickinson's work. Dating his paintings and drawings, therefore, relies on discernment of visual relationships and stylistic groupings. As an early example, there are two versions of The Drive (1 and 2), one a watercolor and the other an oil painting. It is likely that the works were influenced by Preston Dickinson's contact with Charles Demuth, whom he met in Paris between 1912 and 1914. Formally, the two versions of The Drive resemble a series by Demuth known as "The Bay," painted in the early teens. The visual curve of the road in Dickinson's work bares obvious similarities to the bold curve of the bay against shoreline in Demuth's series. Since they were neighbors on the same street in Paris, the artists likely shared their works with one another.
In the watercolor Old Barns (3), c.1919, Dickinson displays significant interest in Cezanne's use of prismatic coloring and geometric fracturing of the picture plane. The arbitrary patterning of carefully placed blues, purples, yellows, and greens create a pulsing depth against the simple architecture of barns and other buildings. The daubs of color, likened to that on an artist's palette, reveal an influence of Dickinson's fellow Daniel Gallery member, Stanton Macdonald-Wright. The two had exhibited at the same Parisian juried exhibition in 1914.
Much of Dickinson's advancement in coloring and composition began in the early 1920s. In Still Life in Interior (6), 1920-1922, Dickinson paints with vibrant hues a collection of objects - books, saucer, bottle, canister, tin items - arranged on a deep perpendicular interior landscape, yet with an emphasis on the geometric vertical surface of the objects themselves. Though it appears casual, this careful arrangement of dynamic shapes and colors with modulated surfaces creates a bold visual statement. Dickinson's brushstrokes and coloring seem to reflect the Van Gogh, Gauguin, Post-Impressionist and Fauve exhibitions in New York City museums at this time. The partially painted lettering "...IEL" in the lower left of the work can be surmised to refer to Charles DanIEL.
Recurrent in Dickinson's still-lifes is the motif of simple dining, often incorporating a chair, angled table, wine bottle, utensil, and plate. In Still Life (27), c. 1920-25, the small size of the paper belies the impact Dickinson's imagery contains. The different planar angles and foreshortening are all hallmarks of Dickinson's spatial experimentation. As in other works, the background object, in this case a chair, anchors an often floating still life world. Transparent coloring and overlapping form, heightening the spatial tension between objects and planes, emerges as a lyrical element. As for Dickinson's refined simplification of shape and color, one critic described it as "grace, precision, and an elegance that are remarkable... (in) modern art."
After returning from Paris, due to financial difficulties, Dickinson moved to the Bronx with his mother, widowed sister and her son. It was at this time that he began exploring the structures along the Harlem River in northern Manhattan. Like his former teacher Ernest Lawson, Dickinson utilized High Bridge, the waterworks, Washington Bridge and High Tower as subject matter. For Dickinson, however, it was the cut-stone architectural structures of the landscape that he found most fascinating: towers, ramparts, and bridges. In these works, Preston Dickinson sets the stage for the artistic celebration and geometric exploration of engineering and industrial achievements in America.
High Bridge (13), Harlem Bridge (10), and Water Tower at High Bridge (14) are portrayals of what were to Dickinson great architectural wonders. In High Bridge, Dickinson carried over into oil the delicate textures and soft lushness of his pastels. The flattened perspective of the pedestrian crossing span on top of the bridge is in marked contrast with the meandering path in the shoveled snow, the receding ramparts, and outlined geometric structures. Calligraphic lines, a foreshortened foreground, a flat middle-ground, and crag-like edges and shadows recall Japanese prints and screens.
Harlem Bridge (now called Washington Bridge) was the first arched bridge with plated girders, with masonry approaches as recorded here by Dickinson. In this pastel, Dickinson depicts with austere outlines a landscape of mysterious buildings and bridges set against a sunless, winter sky. The opened windows and archways of buildings and bridge reveal Dickinson's earliest admiration of El Greco and his View of Toledo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The broad horizontal lines contrasted by flat, planar surfaces, combined with a variety of curves and color schemes borrowed from the "El Greco palette," elevate this sophisticated work beyond a mere appropriation of Cubist and Mannerist references.
Water Tower at High Bridge is seen from a vantage point near the Bronx side of the Harlem River, looking across to a waterworks complex. The pronounced recession of the pathway, further emphasized by the vertical tower, lampposts, and smokestack, is more angular than calligraphic as in the High Bridge oil. The background, now a textured field of white tones, emphasizes the line and form of the architecture. This vertical, geometric, and structural isolation also becomes the formal and conceptual focus of his subsequent studies of grain elevators.
Despite Preston Dickinson's artistic successes, his career failed to provide him with an adequate living. His drinking habits and homosexuality, considered traits of a "bohemian lifestyle" counter to the law of the times, resulted in increased problems with his health and personal well-being. As a result, Dickinson thereby accepted an invitation from a patron to visit Omaha, Nebraska in 1924. Looking at grain elevators and buildings as they towered over the flat, desolate Nebraska plains, Dickinson was impressed and invigorated by these structures that partially formed the Peters Mills industrial complex in south Omaha.
During this period, Dickinson produced at least ten variants of Grain Elevator. His focus was on the geometry of the isolated elevator and its purity of line and form which he enlivened with bright flat planes of color. The white support of the paper allows simplified forms of the granary, tower room, sheds, water tower, freight car, and pipes to all stand out. The foreshortened vantage point, the emphasis on verticality, and the flatness of form and color all lend to the beautiful complexity of these works. Exhibited at Daniel Gallery in the fall of 1924 and generally considered masterpieces of the artist's "Precionist" style, Dickinson's Grain Elevators are depictions of industrial purity.
As in the Grain Elevators, Dickinson retained many of the same experimental advancements in later still-lifes. Hospitality (29), 1925 contains bold, high-keyed color that reaffirms Dickinson's influence by El Greco and Japanese art, while the overall composition relates to the works of Juan Gris. The objects here - wine bottles, decanter, cocktail mixer, and glasses - are again emphasized for their verticality, flattened and floating against an abundance of white. This highly structured still life, a herald of the skyscraper age, also symbolizes the transgressive "hospitality" of the liberal lifestyle that celebrates drinking during Prohibition.
Likewise, Siphon (7) harkens back to Dickinson's Parisian days of bohemian living at the neighborhood cafes and bars. In this image, besides the signature compositional elements, Dickinson has cleverly placed the viewer from the vantage point of a patron sitting at the table, enjoying a drink and looking out to the sidewalk. The reversed text of LA BIERE DE.. adorns the translucent awning, whose graceful edges truncate the white backdrop. (Published is an Atget photograph Cafe Biere.)
Still Life with Candle (30), 1930 is one of the few works Dickinson dated. Drawn in the last year of his life, the large descriptive forms and color intensity show again Dickinson's predilection for Cezanne, as well as his own natural skill as a colorist.
In the summer of 1930, Preston Dickinson, along with the artist and his companion Oronzo Gasparo, went to France and Spain to seek out a domestic and artistic utopia where living costs would be very cheap. They envisioned living magically abroad and producing paintings for galleries to be sold either in New York or Paris. But with the Great Depression taking its first tolls and the Daniel Gallery struggling (closing in 1932), the two artists saw their funds and optimism dwindle.
On November 25, 1930, Preston Dickinson died of pneumonia in northwest Spain at the age of forty-one. In February of 1931, the Phillips Collection presented a Memorial exhibition to recognize the loss in honor of the artist. Perhaps overshadowed and despite being less renown than his contemporaries, due for the most part to his premature death, Preston Dickinson's output of less than two hundred works has ultimately secured a lasting place in the history of American Modernism. A master of color and composition, Dickinson painted with an original purity and boldness that welcomes continued appreciation and re-discovery of his work.
Thomas S. Holman
Thomas S. Holman is an art historian, author, and private fine art advisor. During the past 25 years he has served as Chief Curator at the Norton Museum of Art, Curator of Collections at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, Associate Director at Forum Gallery, and Executive Director at the Hudson River Museum, Albany Museum of Art, and Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art. Mr. Holman works and resides in New York City.
Cloudman, Ruth, Preston Dickinson (1889-1930), Exhibition Catalogue, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1979.
Rubenfeld, Richard Lee, Preston Dickinson: An American Modernist, with a Catalogue of Selected Works, Volumes I & II. Ph.D., dissertation, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, 1985.
Whether in landscape or still life, Preston Dickinson's painting relied on actual observation and reality. In a Pair of Studies for Screens c. 1923 (15a-b), Dickinson's style distorted perspective and presented various viewpoints simultaneously. Unlike other landscapes, the location for this pair of screens has yet to be determined. This work relates to a series of suburbia America that Dickinson painted around 1923. In one of those pictures called The World I Live (private collection), his sister's house in Queens has been identified. With similarities also seen in the background of the oil High Bridge, 1922 (13), Dickinson displays enormous interest in Japanese prints with their spatial treatment, foreshortening, dark outlines, cropped objects, calligraphic lyricism, and ethereal coloring.
This work, which is of a Quebec street scene, was signed and dated later by Preston Dickinson while near the French and Spanish border as July 13, 1930. It is recorded that Dickinson traveled with a large portfolio of previous drawings as he had planned to show his work to Paris art dealers for a possible gallery show. Due to money problems and then health issues, Dickinson is known to have subsequently tried to barter work for lodging and medical expenses until his death in Spain on November 25, 1930. At the time of his death, a portfolio of his drawings was returned by the US Embassy to Preston's sister Enid. With Daniel Gallery defunct in 1932, Enid Dickinson eventually sold this portfolio to Edith Halpert of Downtown Gallery, New York, where a solo show was held in 1938. Due to this July 11, 1930 dating (which is unusual in Dickinson's work), it is thought that this Quebec drawing was part of this portfolio.
Two similar finished versions both called "Street in Quebec,"1926 are an oil painting of a summer scene in the Phillips Collection and the latter a pastel of a winter scene in the collection of Yale University. The similarities to this charcoal Street of Quebec classifies this as a preparatory drawing. Richard Rubenfeld in his dissertation on Preston Dickinson suggests that there was a common sketch that may have linked these two works of different seasons together.
To highlight contemporary American art for the 150th Anniversary of the founding of this country, a major national juried exhibition was held in Philadelphia in 1926. This juried national exhibition awarded Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medals in categories by medium, i.e. painting, watercolor, sculpture, etc.... Preston Dickinson was awarded the Bronze Medal for Painting at the Pennsylvania Sesquicentennial in 1926 for Harlem River. The only recorded painting of this title is in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art and is reunited for the first time with the actual certificate awarded to Preston Dickinson. Coincidentally, the Silver Medal for Watercolor was given to Charles Demuth. Despite the 1926 award, the stylistic patterning and allegiance to naive American folk painting, which was rediscovered as a form of modernism at the time, suggests that Preston Dickinson painted Harlem River (11) between 1915 and 1918.
In 1923-1924, Preston Dickinson painted a series of focused and cropped room interiors. Even though the views seem uninspiring, Dickinson interest was in shapes, curves, patterning, and coloring. Each of these different paintings have a tonality and harmony in shape and coloring. Still Life, c. 1920 (9) seems to be from this series in which boldness of line, shape and color are in contrast. In the other related works, the coloring is subdued and the lines more lyrical. However, for Dickinson, this still life represents an experimentation in painting and design, similar to a page of the most modern interior in an American design magazine. Such boldness in an interior would not be a reality in American design for almost another thirty years.