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Arthur Wesley Dow
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Ipswich, Mass
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
New York City
One of America’s leading art instructors of the early 20th century, Arthur Wesley Dow was a painter, photographer and an innovative printmaker who probably was the first American to create color woodblock prints in the Japanese style. Born in 1857 in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Dow was educated at the Ipswich grammar school and then at the Putnam Free School in nearby Newburyport, but could not afford college. He instead taught elementary school and continued academic studies through private lessons from Rev. John P. Cowles (1805-1890), the retired director of the Ipswich Female Seminary. Dow’s drawings of old Ipswich buildings and prints he made to illustrate “Antiquarian Papers” published by the Rev. Augustine Caldwell of Worcester developed his interest in art. He first took art lessons from Anna K. Freeland of Worcester, Mass. in 1880. In 1881 Dow began studying under James M. Stone in Boston. Through Stone’s classes Dow met fellow student Minnie Pearson, whom he would later marry. Encouraged by Stone to study in Europe, Dow went to Paris in October 1884. He studied at the Académie Julian and took evening classes at the École National des Arts Décoratifs. Dow spent several months in Pont-Aven in Brittany in 1885 along with other artists, hoping to paint works that would be accepted for the Paris Salon. He returned to Brittany in 1886, where he met Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). After one of Dow’s paintings won acceptance for the 1887 Salon, he returned to Boston to organize a solo exhibition there in early 1888, which was financially successful. Dow returned to France later that year with Minnie Pearson, then his fiancée, first to Pont-Aven for the summer and then to Paris. He created works for submission to the Salon and the 1889 Exposition Universelle, and then returned to Ipswich. He opened a studio in Boston, where he painted and taught painting, and did art history research in the Boston Public Library. Discovery in early 1891 of a book on the Japanese “floating world” printmaker Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) opened his eyes to the aesthetic of Japanese prints, which he then studied at the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). There Dow became acquainted with the curator Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (1853-1908), who became a close friend and colleague. Dow began collecting Japanese prints and learned to cut and ink woodblocks and print on a variety of papers. He founded his Ipswich Summer School of Art in 1891, which taught traditional crafts in addition to painting and printmaking. Dow became a part-time assistant curator of Japanese art at the MFA under Fenollosa in 1893. Later that year he married Minnie Pearson, who also taught at the Ipswich Summer School and soon ran all the administrative tasks of the School. Fenollosa mounted an exhibition of Dow’s color woodblock prints in 1895 in the Japanese corridor of the MFA, showing some 200 prints, mostly color variations of fifteen images of Ipswich. That fall Dow was invited to join the faculty of Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, where he advocated recognition for all art forms, including “crafts,” and taught until 1903. After Fenollosa resigned from the MFA in 1896, Dow was appointed Curator of Japanese Art to replace him, a post Dow kept for two years. He exhibited paintings and woodcuts at Pratt, the Grolier Club in Manhattan and a San Francisco gallery that year. He began teaching at New York’s Art Students League in 1898, while continuing to teach in Brooklyn and Ipswich. Although he had taken photographs earlier, Dow took up photography as an art form around 1890. Like his paintings and prints, most of his surviving photographs are landscapes. In 1899 he published his text “Composition,” which became a seminal art-instruction book for decades, with its focus on line, color and the balance of dark and light in a work of art. The around-the-world trip Dow took with Minnie in 1903-04 included three months in Japan, where he received a telegram announcing his appointment as Director of the Fine Arts Department of Teachers College, Columbia University. Early in his tenure he hired his friend Clarence Hudson White (1871-1925) to teach photography. On sabbatical from Teachers College during the 1911-12 academic year, Dow and his wife traveled to Arizona, visiting the Grand Canyon among other places, where Dow and his former Ipswich student Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) took photographs and sketched. After spending time in Southern California, Dow and Coburn returned to the Grand Canyon early the next year. Back in New York Dow turned his Grand Canyon sketches into paintings. Among his many students perhaps the best known is Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), who studied with him in 1914-15. Dow submitted two paintings and twenty-four prints to San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where he received a bronze medal for his prints. Dow continued to paint, make prints and teach until his sudden death in 1922. (TNB 2/2015) Selected bibliography: Green, Nancy E., Frederick C. Moffatt, et al. Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922): His Art and His Influence. Exhibition catalog. New York: Spanierman Gallery, 1999. Moffatt, Frederick C. Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922). Exhibition catalog. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977