Thursday, 24 March 2016

Arthur Wesley Dow: lost chances along Ipswich River

 I begin to wonder what exactly was in Arthur Wesley Dow's mind when he made his first colour woodcuts in Massachusetts early in the 1890s. (The photograph shows Dow with a guitar seated on a wheelbarrow with his brother). Over the years he has gained a reputation as the first artist in the United States to make them and although this is true, scholars and academics are in the bad habit of giving such events as 'the first American colour woodcuts' a meaning they never had at the time. It's called art history.

That said, this would not be Modern Printmakers without a little bit of history of our own. Dow was not the first person to make modern colour woodcuts. The honour, such as it is, goes to Auguste Lepere in Paris. He came up with two or three rather peculiar and misconceived works starting just before Dow and was followed by Henri Riviere who had the bright idea of a making a portfolio of woodcuts, which all included one view or other of the brand-new Eiffel Tower in imitation of Hokusai's 100 views of Mount Fuji. But Riviere soon realised his project was too ambitious and he scaled back and most of the prints in the series became lithographs.

Wisely, Dow made much smaller prints than Riviere and also made prints that didn't depend on a famous location. Instead he chose the river bank of his home town of Ipswich and, I believe, the north shore at Boston. It was a deliberate choice because he had come to the conclusion that the representation of a subject was less important than manner of representation. Beyond that he also produced variants of the same print, often radically different ways of using the same blocks. These were called 'lost chances' by his colleague and  friend, Ernest Fenellosa who was a curator of oriental art at the Museum of Fine Art at Boston.

Dow had come back to the U.S. in 1887  after training in Paris and later said, 'An experience of five years in the French Schools left me thoroughly dissatisfied with academic theory' and he went on to say, 'in a search for something more vital I began a comparative study of the art of all nations and epochs'. But this was not an idea he had to himself. Oscar Wilde was more subtle when he said, 'All beautiful things belong to the same era' and what Dow was doing was taking up the study of aesthetics and as he read and looked he came into contact with Fenellosa at M.F.A. and both began to work together and eventually Dow became an assistant curator for a time.

But this is not what artists generally do and in some ways the small prints you see here are what you might call teaching examples. At the time young craftsmen and artists were sent to museums and galleries to copy work and what Dow was doing was making a synthesis of the work he had himself studied to suggest a way forward beyond that kind of sterile reproduction. The next step  was to start giving lectures and then to teach. But again, this was nothing new. His model was the English artist and theorist, John Ruskin, and it was education that drove men like Ruskin forwards, the education of the working-class, the education of craftsmen and of artists. But then Ruskin had a great and practical follower in William Morris. Fenellosa and Dow were variants, lost chances, if you like. You can see that Dow also took photographs of many of the same places. Like the prints, they are impressions, the Ipswich River and its boats and buildings and bridges are depicted tonally and then in colour. It could be anywhere; it didn't matter.

Fenellosa was a scholar and teacher while Dow was true to the nineties in the way he combined making art and coming up with a theory of art education. But it was all very different from what was happening in England in the Arts and Crafts at the time where the emphasis was placed on doing and the way people learned by doing proper work. All this helps to explain what I think these early prints by Dow are really about and why it was that British artists like John Platt, Ian Cheyne and Arthur Rigden Read from about 1920 onwards could send prints to the U.S. and win the prizes. Dow hadn't liked French academic theory and went on to replace it with theory of his own. It was left to Dow's students like Edna Boies Hopkins to make the really good prints. When Dow began to draw on the Japanese example and make colour woodcuts in his own way, he could have had no idea what would follow. Looking at this work is like following his footprints as he works his way along the shore. It is not so much they are variants, they are tentative, with nothing final about them.

The colour images are from Herschel and Adler's exemplary website so many thanks to them. The photographs come from the distinguished collection at M.F.A. Boston. Please don't sue.



  1. I don't disagree with what you say about Dow and his art. But what is not clear to me is what you think about Riviere's work for its time.

  2. It's a good question. I suppose one or two things are inferred about Riviere. As it happens, I have already tried to write about him but abandoned the post. There is, however, a post about Auguste Lepere coming up next. The fact is there are readers who know more about Riviere than I do so there is no point me just sounding off. Anyway, Lepere will provide the lead in to Riviere, perhaps.

  3. I should also say that writing about Dow isn't easy. Although I have read some of Nancy E Green's work, other books by her are expensive now and I wouldn't consider Dow to be that much of a priority.