IPSWICH – Essex County has its own hidden gem of the art world and American art history in Arthur Wesley Dow, artist, educator and “influencer” who painted iconic scenes on the North Shore, founded the Ipswich Summer School of Art and even taught art to young people Georgia O’Keeffe.
Dow is doing justice these days with Celebrating the Life and Art of Arthur Wesley Dow: 1857-1922 opening at the Ipswich Museum this weekend.
In addition to this celebration in his hometown, Dow is the subject of an exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover through July, and there are Dow tours of downtown Ispwich that include historic streets and scenes depicting his painting filled in. Posters and photography throughout his life.
In the early 1900s, Dow was the equivalent of today’s modern “influencers.” Though he died a century ago, his influence can still be found today in the art world, in art education, and in the works of his former students and their students.
Stephanie Gaskins, President and Dow Curator of the Ipswich Museum, is the right person to ask about the local artist.
“We have the largest collection of his work in the world,” she said proudly.
In 1891, Dow focused on teaching art. He opened the Ipswich Summer School of Art, which he ran with his wife until 1907, offering courses in photography, painting, textiles, pottery and other media. Gaskins said the school is typically filled each summer with female teachers and art scholars eager to learn his methods — up to 200 a year. He also taught with Pratt in New York City.
In 1893 Dow was hired as associate curator of the Japanese collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston under Ernest Fenollosa. Fenollosa introduced Dow to the woodcuts of Japan. He accepted commissions for posters and other commercial work. In 1895 he designed the poster to advertise the Journal of Modern Art and in 1896 he designed the poster for an exhibition of Japanese prints.
“He wanted to mix Eastern and Western art – look at the beautiful things that came out of Japanese work, Egyptian work and so on,” she said.
According to Gaskins, Dow thought art should be like a piece of music, a beautiful symphony.
“Dow believed that all art should be beautiful, whether it be a jug, a rug, or a painting,” Gaskin said.
Was he really unsung? Yes and no, Gaskins said.
“(Its popularity) varies at different times. It was at its peak, it was very strong while he was alive and influenced the way art was taught in the country. He wrote a few books that were important for teachers to read, and then they taught kids and adults how he wanted to learn to make ‘fine art,'” she said.
Dow’s work was widely exhibited during his lifetime, and his reputation as an artist and educator continues to grow after his death.
“His influence on the Arts and Crafts movement is acknowledged to be huge.”
His seminal 1899 book, Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers, is still in print. Dow’s methods continued to be widely taught through the 1950s, when appreciation of American artists in general was at its lowest point, Gaskins said. Since the 2000s, Dow’s achievements, artworks, and theories have been rediscovered by new generations, while his students’ artworks have risen to prominence. Many art lovers are now discovering Dow thanks to his influence on famed artist Georgia O’Keeffe, she said.
The collection of Dow’s work at the Ipswich Museum – thousands of objects – includes oil paintings, watercolours, photographs, ink drawings, woodblock prints and plaster casts that he made. Born and raised in Ipswich, Dow spent his life interpreting imagery of the city. Influenced by Japanese art, Dow single-handedly transformed art teaching and theory in America by combining Japanese techniques with the purity of design inherent in the Arts and Crafts Movement. The museum also has his own personal art collection, memorabilia and items used in his career and craft.
Always returned to Ipswich
By the age of 19, Dow was already working on illustrations for The Antiquarian Papers, showing drawings and sketches of the area’s ‘old’ houses, samples of which can be seen in the exhibition. After studying art first in Worcester and then in Boston, Dow traveled to Paris, where he enrolled at the Academie Julian. There, Dow produced award-winning entries for the Salon and paintings that were exhibited and sold on return visits to the United States. Dow’s early paintings reflected his training in Boston and Paris.
Dow’s attention to light, especially twilight, remained constant throughout his life. He traveled extensively but returned regularly to the artists’ colony at Ipswich.
Throughout his career, Dow taught art at major American arts schools, including the Pratt Institute from 1896 to 1903 and the New York Art Students League from 1898 to 1903.
From 1904 until his death in 1922 he was a professor of fine arts at Columbia University Teachers College. After his death in NYC he was buried at the Old North Burying Ground in Ipswich.