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Details & Cataloguing

American Art

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New York

Edwin Walter Dickinson
1891 - 1978
SELF PORTRAIT IN UNIFORM
signed E W Dickinson and dated 1942 (lower center) 
oil on canvas
23 3/4 by 28 3/4 inches
(60.3 by 73 cm)
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This work is  numbered 429 in the online catalogue raisonné of the artist's work at www.edwindickinson.org. 

Provenance

Mr. and Mrs. Remsen V. Wood
Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, New York
Driscoll Babcock Galleries, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above

Exhibited

Boston, Massachusetts, Stuart School of Design, Paintings and Drawings by Edwin Dickinson, February 1942
New York, Georgette Passedoit Gallery, Paintings, Edwin Dickinson, March 1942
Chatham, Massachusetts, Monomy Theater, Work by Edwin Dickinson, August 1942
New York, Federation of Modern Painters & Sculptors, 1942
Ithaca, New York, Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art, Edwin Dickinson, Visiting Artist: An Exhibition of Paintings, 1912-1956, December 1957-January 1958 (as Self Portrait and dated 1924)
New York, James Graham & Sons, Edwin Dickinson, Retrospective, February-March 1961 (as dated 1946)
New York, Museum of Modern Art; Nashville, Tennessee, Tennessee Fine Arts Center; Columbia, South Carolina, Columbia Museum of Art; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Chatham College; Austin, Texas, University of Texas; La Jolla, California, Art Center of La Jolla; Chattanooga, Tennessee, Hunter Gallery of Art; Auburn, Alabama, Auburn University; Quincy, Illinois, Quincy Art Center; Savannah, Georgia, Telfair Academy of Arts and Science; Wilmington, Delaware, Delaware Art Center; Storrs, Connecticut, University of Connecticut; Madison, Wisconsin, Madison Art Association, Edwin Dickinson, 1961-1963
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Edwin Dickinson: Major Retrospective, October-November 1965
Provincetown, Massachusetts, Provincetown Art Association, Hawthorne Memorial Gallery, Selections from the Work of Edwin Dickinson, August-September 1967
Buffalo, New York, State University College at Buffalo, Charles Burchfield Center; Albany, New York, Albany Institute of History and Art; Ithaca, New York, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Tribute Exhibition: Edwin Dickinson, September 1977-December 1978
New York, National Academy of Design Galleries, Art Students League Benefit Sale, May-July 1982
New York, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Realism and Abstraction: Counterpoints in American Drawings, 1900-1940, November-December 1983
Southampton, New York, Parrish Art Museum, The Painterly Figure, July-September 1983
Buffalo, New York, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; New York, National Academy of Design; Little Rock, Arkansas, Arkansas Art Center; Lincoln, Nebraska, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Edwin Dickinson: Dreams and Realities, April 2002-November 2003, no. 46, pp. 66, 75nn.82, 88, illustrated p. 158

Catalogue Note

We are grateful to Dr. John Driscoll for preparing the following essay.

Edwin Dickinson was an enormously consequential expressionist painter whose work drew upon art’s greatest and deepest traditions and established a powerful influential presence in the careers of artists ranging from Willem de Kooning to Robert Ryman. One recalls Dickinson’s famous quotation about El Greco, “When I saw the Burial of Count Orgaz I knew where my aspirations lay”[1] and Elaine de Kooning’s description of Dickinson as “a great artist” whose “contempt for conventional angles of vision...reconciles poetry with perspective.”[2] Dickinson’s seven revelatory exhibitions at Georgette Passedoit Gallery, between 1936 and 1942, where many of the younger painters first encountered his expressive brushwork and ephemeral imagery, set the stage for his important influence. Willem de Kooning met Dickinson in 1942 and they became close friends. In 1949 Elaine de Kooning wrote “Dickinson Paints a Picture” for ARTNews in which she discusses his formal and intentional approaches to image making. Dickinson’s series of female nudes, with imagery fading in and out of focus through his expressive brushwork and subtle color modulations, painted in the mid to late 1930’s may well have influenced De Kooning’s famous series of Woman paintings of the early 1950’s.  The De Koonings were not the only Abstract Expressionist painters inspired by Dickinson. Jack Tworkov asserted that “Dickinson was the greatest painter America produced – in any century.”[3] Indeed, he was a kind of “Eminence Grise” for the Stable Gallery group that included Guston, Kline, Pollock, Motherwell, Hofmann, Baziotes and De Kooning, and where Dickinson himself had a seminal one-person show in 1954.

The painting Elaine de Kooning wrote about for ARTnews was Ruin at Daphne which Dickinson had worked on for a decade, from 1943 until 1953, when it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Whitney Museum of American Art then acquired The Fossil Hunters and the January 1959 issue of ARTNews proclaimed it “the best modern painting to enter an American public collection in 1958.”[4] This was followed by a major retrospective at the Whitney in 1965 and in 1968 Dickinson was the principal American artist featured at the 34th Venice Biennial.

Dickinson became known as “an artist’s artist” perhaps because so many artists, including Stuart Davis and Fairfield Porter wrote about his work.  But so did every major critic and historian of the period:  Thomas B. Hess, Dore Ashton, Katharine Kuh, Barbara Rose, John Ashbery, Hilton Kramer and more recently, the great Jackson Pollock scholar, Francis V. O’Connor, to name just a few. 

Self-Portrait in Uniform, 1942, is among Dickinson’s principal works–one of his finest masterworks. It is one of a triad of pictures, the other two being figure pieces of his daughter Helen and his son Constant. In a way, it reflects a tradition of American Flag paintings from John Trumbull to Emanuel Leutze (Fig. 1) to Jasper Johns (Fig. 2) and Faith Ringgold.  The uniform, which Dickinson actually owned, is, in spite of its physical reality, an invented conceit. It illuminates and then casts into shadow the heart of Dickinson’s experiential art and his imagery of ambiguity, leaving himself and his viewer open to the prospects of imagination and psychological tensions within which all of his art is contextualized.  He once wrote to his friend and patron Ansley Sawyer that it is not possible to “be privy wholly to what the piece may mean to me”[5] and here, as in all the best expressionist art, Dickinson explores the duality and dichotomies inherent in the portrayal of representational imagery and abstract expressive painting.  The “meaning” is much richer than the overt simplicity of the immediately apparent imagery, and yet the meaning might forever remain within the private dialogue of the artist and his art.  One must engage the image or not see the raptor emerging from the nebulous brushstrokes and color tones, or the very realistically articulated but ambiguous shape at lower right.  Even the Stars and Stripes seem to be emerging from the vagaries of peripheral vision. Yet seeing all of this through the structure of abstraction and ambiguity, it remains a painting done in time of war. But the conflict referred to is that within the artist – and the pathos of his own memories and experiences. Presenting himself as a soldier when he was a civilian is a metaphor for the artist painting not “from” nature, but “of” nature.  It is here, in the arena of conceptual abstraction that Dickinson is at his best, where rather than painting what is seen, he paints his thoughts “of” what is seen. 

[1] Elaine de Kooning. “Edwin Dickinson Paints a Picture,” Artnews, 48, (September 1949) 50
[2] de Kooning 1949, 28 and 51
[3] Jack Tworkov to the author, September 8, 1979
[4] Artnews, January, 1959, Volume 57, Number 9, 5.
5. Edwin Dickinson to Ansley Sawyer, January 8, 1952, Sawyer Letters, Archives of American Art.

American Art

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New York