The Biography of
Chicagoan artist Manierre Dawson is America’s Pioneer of Modern Art. By 1908, hedeveloped a personal, avant-garde style that reflected his training as an engineer. By the spring of 1910, Dawson created a
series of non-representational paintings that were among the first pure abstractions ever created, slightly predating works by Wassily Kandinsky and Arthur Dove.
Manierre Dawson was born to parents who appreciated the arts as an avocation but did not consider art a suitable vocation. Manierre demonstrated an interest in drawing and painting from a very early age but his father insisted on a “professional” career. Upon completion of high school in 1905, Dawson enrolled in the civil engineering program at the Armour Institute of Technology only a dozen blocks from their south-side Chicago home. By then, he had already progressed beyond painting from nature to painting from his imagination. By the time he completed his four-year degree in 1909, his civil engineering courses had made a lasting impact on his creative vision. His mathematics courses contributed directly to his first series of abstract paintings in the spring of 1910. At the time, he was a first-year employee at the Chicago architectural firm of Holabird and Roche, also within walking distance of his childhood home.
After a year with the firm Dawson was granted a six-month leave-of-absence for an educational tour of Europe. He departed in mid-June 1910 for his only trip abroad. In the minds of his employer and his father the purpose of the trip was to study architecture. He did visit architectural monuments early in his tour but before long his attention was consumed by the art collections in the major museums. His itinerary is well documented in his journal. Disembarking in Liverpool, he made his way across England to France, south through Germany, across Switzerland to Italy, back north through Paris, around northern Germany before embarking from Bremerhaven in late-November. In Siena, he met and exchanged ideas on painting with John Singer Sargent. During his second visit to Paris he saw works by Paul Cézanne in Ambrose Vollard’s gallery and attended a Saturday evening soiree at the apartment of Gertrude Stein who bought one of his paintings, his first sale. Returning through Hoboken, he stopped in New York to call upon Arthur B. Davies who introduced him to Albert Pinkham Ryder.
Fueled by his tour of Europe and meeting Davies, 1911 through 1914 were the most productive years of his career. While abroad he produced scores of watercolors and a few oil paintings on 9 x 12 inch wood panels cut specifically to fit into the lid of his suitcase. Back in Chicago, he produced paintings based on old master compositions. His journal entries reveal that he saw everything from the Rouen Cathedral to Cézanne’s paintings in terms of structure as expected of an engineer. His treatment of old master compositions is a matter of identifying and isolating their fundamental pictorial structure. Recognition of this fascination with structure is key to understanding most of Dawson’s art throughout a significant portion of his career.
Two years after they met, Davies sent a letter inviting Dawson to participate in the International Exhibition of Modern Art (better known as the Armory Show). Due to logistics and intimidation, Dawson concluded that he had nothing to send. All of his best pieces were inaccessible at the family summer retreat in Michigan and those that were at hand he deemed too small or too derivative to exhibit in New York. When the exhibition came to Chicago, he met Walter Pach and bought two paintings: Marcel Duchamp’s Nu (esquisse) (Nude [study]) now known as Jeune homme triste dans un train (Sad Young Man on a Train) and Amadéo de Souza Cardoso’s Return from the Chase. Dawson called the Armory Show the most exciting time of his life but the exhibition also brought an end to his employment at Holabird and Roche. Either he chose to quit to devote more time to painting as a result of the Armory Show or he was terminated because he was spending so much time at the exhibition.
A year later, Dawson was invited to participate in two exhibitions and he went to great lengths to retrieve the desired paintings. One exhibition, organized by Davies and Pach in conjunction with the Montross Gallery in New York, traveled to Detroit, Cincinnati and Baltimore. The other, organized by a high school friend and director of the Milwaukee Art Society, was conceived to capitalize on the notoriety of the Armory Show. This exhibition resulted in the sale of two paintings to Arthur Jerome Eddy.
After a year of bouncing from one job to another, Dawson moved permanently to Michigan and bought a fruit farm in 1914. Summers spent at the family’s retreat were his most productive periods as an artist and provided rudimentary knowledge of growing and marketing fruit. Before long he met Lillian Boucher, the daughter of a local farmer, and fell in love. They married in July 1915 and three children work born over the next five years.
Just as the impact of his civil engineering training is evident in his early career, the events of his life and profession influenced his art later in his career. When he began to make a living from the land and started a family, fertility appears as the theme of some of his works. Likewise, the long hours in his orchards, pruning, spraying, and harvesting, resulted in compositions consisting of intertwining limbs. Conceived as sculptures but recorded as paintings in the late teens, some were realized in three dimensions in retirement. The red-orange color the western Michigan soil itself is seen in many paintings. Living in rural Michigan and struggling financially art was made from what was available. A partial bag of Portland cement was cast and carved into a relief. Scraps of lumber were attached to a piece of plywood, carved and painted. Sheets of composite wood (brand names Novoply and Timblend) were laminated together for thickness and carved into freestanding sculptures.
In January 1921 Dawson reestablished contact with Walter Pach and Dudley Crafts Watson. Through Pach’s encouragement he send paintings to New York for annual exhibitions of the Society of Independent Artists in 1922 and 1923. His renewed contact with Watson resulted in an exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Society in 1923, his first solo show.
In 1942, Dawson’s first-born child and only son, Lieutenant Gerard Dawson, was killed when the plane he was piloting crashed in Panama. For the next decade, Dawson frequently chose subjects from mythology and classical literature (his father’s field of study) that address hubris. After Gerard’s tragic death, Dawson was able for the first time to understand his father’s emotions when his eldest son, George Jr., drowned in 1904.
In 1948, Dawson visited New York again for the first time since 1910. In the mid-1950’s he and Lilli began wintering in Sarasota, Florida. His first real recognition of his work began in 1966 with a retrospective exhibition at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. An exhibition organized by the John and Mable Ringing Museum in Sarasota and shared with the Norton Gallery in West Palm Springs followed a year later. This exhibition brought Dawson to the attention of Robert Schoelkopf who showed his work in New York in April 1969.
When Dawson was diagnosed with cancer in 1968, he sold the Michigan farm and moved to Sarasota permanently. Manierre Dawson, who was in high school when the Wright brothers made their first powered flight, lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. He died in August 1969.
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