Manierre Dawson, abstract painter (1887 - 1969)

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Birthplace: Chicago, IL, USA
Death: Died in Sarasota, FL, USA
Occupation: among american painters, earliest abstract painter
Managed by: Michael Reid Delahunt, art teacher & lexicographer
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About Manierre Dawson, abstract painter

Manierre Dawson was the first American artist to produce an abstract painting (source: art historian Randy Ploog).

Wikipedia (2009): Manierre Dawson (1887-1969) was an abstract artist from Chicago, Illinois, USA.

Dawson had almost no formal training in art outside of his education as a civil engineer at the Armour Institute of Technology. He worked as a draftsman for an architectural firm after graduation in 1909. In 1910, he toured Europe, soaking up the new art atmosphere and painting abstract works of his own. Although invited to have his work in the Armory Show of 1913, his only contribution to it came when the show came to Chicago and installed his Wharf under Mountain. In 1913, after the Armory Show had been in Chicago, "Walter Pach extended Dawson an invitation from Arthur B. Davies to exhibit with fourteen of the most advanced artists in the U.S. After The Fourteen, as the exhibition became know, traveled to five American cities, Manierre Dawson would exhibit his artwork only three more times before being rediscovered in 1963" (Bates, Geoffrey, 2006, "Manierre Dawson: An Artist Out of Bounds," The Living Museum, 68(1): 8-13). Unable to make a go of painting as a stable source of income, he became a farmer, painting and sculpting in the slack seasons. Only in the 1960s did his reputation as an innovator in American abstract art develop. He died in Sarasota, Florida, where he had retired after being a successful farmer in Michigan.

Here's a short article by Dan Tranberg, appearing in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 26, 2002:

Was Chicago artist Manierre Dawson the father of abstract painting?

By Dan Tranberg

1910 was a pivotal year in the history of art.

It was the year that Wassily Kandinsky, working in Munich, Germany and Arthur Dove, working in Westport, Connecticut, independently made the world's first abstract paintings.

At least that's what the history books say.

But history is written in curious ways.

Considering the enormous artistic and technological advances that took place during the first decade of the 20th century, isn't it possible that other artists of the time also stumbled upon the idea of painting something besides the visible world?

Enter Manierre Dawson, a little-known Chicago-born artist who may just be the undiscovered originator of abstract painting.

Last fall, the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired an unassuming 12-by-16-inch painting by Dawson titled "Differential Complex." Made up entirely of parabolas, straight lines, and circles, it is completely abstract. It's also dated 1910.

According to Henry Adams, CMA's Curator of American Painting, the painting is likely to have been executed several months before Kandinsky's and Dove's earliest abstract canvases.

Perhaps as importantly, Adams asserts that "the Dawson painting is far more conceptually radical than those of either Kandinsky or Dove."

While Kandinsky's and Dove's earliest abstract works clearly possess visual elements derived from nature, Dawson, who worked by day as an architectural engineer in Chicago, based his paintings from this period on mathematical ideas.

Adams points out that "between 1890 and 1910, Chicago architects, particularly Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, established the hallmarks of modern architecture: the skyscraper, and the free-flowing house with an open plan."

In the midst of these creative innovations, Adams believes that Dawson applied similar architectural ideas to painting.

"Engineers think of physical matter not in terms of its shape or surface but rather in terms of the internal lines of force that run through it," says Adams.

With its web of darting and arching lines, Dawson's "Differential Complex" seems to trace unseen energies across a loose grid that vaguely resembles graph paper.

But proving that Dawson actually did the painting when he said he did is another story.

In unraveling the details of Dawson's life, Adams and others have learned all kinds of interesting details about the artist's life. Shortly after painting "Differential Complex," Dawson traveled to Europe where he met some of key players in the bourgeoning modern art scene. Among them were Gertrude Stein (to whom he later sold his first painting), John Singer Sargent, and Edouard Vuillard.

Upon his return, following a period of intense artistic activity, Dawson married in 1914 and had a strange idea: to move to Michigan and become a fruit farmer. According to Adams, Dawson initially thought that the plan would allow him to paint in the winter while tending to the orchards in the summer.

It didn't work. Short after establishing his business, Dawson disappeared from the art world entirely. It wasn't until the 1960's that he re-emerged as a millionaire farmer in the possession of some 250 paintings and sculptures, which he had accumulated over the course of 50 years.

While Adams is among Dawson's champions, he's not the only one who believes in Dawson's significance as a pioneer of Modernism.

Paintings by Dawson can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Still, convincing the world of Dawson's place in the history of art may take some time. "My guess," Adams says, "is that 20 to 50 years from now, this will be an extremely important painting."

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In 2010 the web site of the Ryerson Library at the Chicago Art Institute identified documents concerning Manierre Dawson. An online search at http://digital-libraries.saic.edu/ identified these materials as being in a collection called "Esther Sparks Papers, 1969-1972" on page 5.

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Manierre Dawson, abstract painter's Timeline

1887
1887
Chicago, IL, USA
1969
1969
Age 82
Sarasota, FL, USA