New York City
Known for his many murals decorating public buildings and international exposition pavilions and large historical works, William de Leftwich Dodge was also a gifted painter of portraits and Impressionist oils and watercolors. Born in Liberty (now Bedford) Virginia in 1867, his family moved first to Chicago and then to Brooklyn. His mother took Dodge and his two siblings to Munich to study art in 1879, leaving his father behind. After a year she moved her family to Paris, where Dodge began art training at the École des Beaux-Arts and Académie Colarossi at age fifteen. Wishing to enter the École as a formal student the next year, he failed the entrance examination. Frightened by a cholera epidemic in Paris, his mother moved the family to Berlin in 1884, where he enrolled in the school now known as the Akademie der Künste, winning a prize for his art. The family returned to Paris after six months, and in 1885 Dodge gained entrance to the École des Beaux-Arts where he studied under the famed Academician, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) for four years, winning several awards, including a first-place medal, the Prix d’Atelier. Under Gérôme’s supervision he painted a large work, “The Death of Minnehaha,” (1887, Denver: American Museum of Western Art, Anschutz Collection), inspired by the poem “The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Dodge sent the work to New York City for the 1887 Prize Fund Exhibition of the American Art Association, where it won one of ten gold medals and a cash prize of $300. Dodge won third-place medals at the 1888 Salon and the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle for his “David and Goliath” (1888). He returned to New York City in 1889 and exhibited there in two group exhibitions in 1890. His works in the Impressionist style, praised at the 1889 Paris Salon, were criticized by the New York critics and again the next year when shown at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. To support himself Dodge turned to illustration and murals. He was one of eleven artists who painted a large mural of the 1871 Chicago Fire for Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition. Dodge then obtained the commission for the mural to decorate the dome of the Chicago Exposition’s Administration Building, a dome about 110 feet in diameter and 50 feet high. The mural was a success and won an award. In 1894 he returned to Paris, seeking a more-welcoming art market and a lower cost of living. While there Dodge received a commission for five murals for the dome and four tympanums in one pavilion of the new Library of Congress building in Washington D.C. This project paid a handsome commission of $8,000 and secured his artistic and financial future. Dodge exhibited the murals along with fifty-five other works in New York City in 1896 before installation in Washington. That exhibition led to confusion among the critics. The murals, on allegorical themes, were done in the highly-finished style taught by Gérôme, while many of his easel paintings were done in the Impressionist style. Nevertheless, a sale of his works was successful, and Dodge proceeded to marry Frances Bland Pryor in 1897, the socialite daughter of a New York City lawyer. The couple moved to Paris, while spending summers in Giverny from 1898 to 1900. While in France he received commissions for illustrations, most notably a five-volume series of books on opera. Dodge returned to New York in 1900 after receiving commissions for magazine illustrations. His solo exhibition of 135 works shown in New York and Chicago in 1900 and 1901 was controversial for the nudes in outdoor settings. During the early 1900s Dodge received commissions for murals for private and public buildings in New York City, Boston and Toronto, as well as portraits. His financial success allowed him to build a lavish house in Setauket, Long Island. Many of his easel paintings created in the following years showed views of his new home or of the seascape viewed from it. His successful career as a muralist continued for decades. These included two 100-foot-long triptychs installed in the arch of the Tower of Jewels of San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Along with other PPIE muralists, Dodge showed fifteen easel paintings in the art exhibition at the Palace Hotel that preceded the PPIE. He taught for a year at New York’s Art Students League and then from 1916 until 1929 at the Cooper Union. Dodge continued to receive commissions, including murals for a college in Iowa (1920), the Flag Room of the New York State Capitol building in Albany (1928), a hospital in Lynchburg, Virginia (1929) and the Buffalo City Hall (1931). Trips to Italy and Mexico inspired easel paintings and watercolors. He worked despite compromised health following a 1928 heart attack. Dodge exhibited his final painting in the 1934 Paris Salon and died the following year. (TNB 1/2015) Selected bibliography: Pisano, Ronald G. William de Leftwich Dodge: Impressions Home and Abroad: with Sculpture by Frederick William MacMonnies. Exhibition catalog. New York: Beacon Hill Fine Art, 1998.