A self-taught painter who believed that “great art ... does not represent or copy nature” but should come from “within oneself,” Manierre Dawson was one of the first American artists to embrace abstraction. Indeed, between 1910 and 1914, Dawson created some of the most radical paintings of his day, ranging from cubist-inspired figurative works to pure abstractions. That he turned his attention to non-representational art while working on his own––in conservative-minded Chicago rather than in New York––makes his brief professional career even more compelling.
Dawson’s path from representation to abstraction reflected a confluence of influences, among them theoretical and artistic sources that he experienced locally, as well as his extensive background in civil engineering and his penchant for endless experimentation. Born in the Windy City on December 22, 1887, Dawson grew up in a cultured environment. His father, George, a respected lawyer who studied in Europe, was especially influential in his son’s early development, exposing him to books, poetry, music, and opera. As a boy, Dawson demonstrated considerable intellectual curiosity, as apparent in his sketches of animals, to which he thoughtfully appended their Latin names. Dawson went on to attend art classes at Chicago’s South Division High School, studying under Katherine G. Dimock, who may have introduced him to Arthur Wesley Dow’s Composition (1899), a standard textbook used in art classes around the country. Dawson’s familiarity with Dow’s design philosophy, including his emphasis on simplicity and harmony, can be seen in his earliest paintings––intimate nocturnes, rendered in shades of blue, painted on small panels and shingles. These evocative oils also suggest Dawson’s awareness of the work of James McNeill Whistler, which he would have encountered by way of Arthur Jerome Eddy, the Chicago-based lawyer, critic, and collector whose Recollections and Impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler was published in 1904.
After completing high school in 1905, Dawson wanted to become a professional artist. However, to please his practical-minded father, he agreed to study civil engineering at the Armour Institute of Technology, enrolling in a demanding four-year course of study that required a firm grasp of geometry, trigonometry, and mechanical drawing. Accordingly, Dawson pursued painting on weekends and during summer vacations. Working out of a room in his parents’ home, he created fantasy pictures and still lifes (“hobby works,” as he called them) that bear affinities with Ashcan School Realism, Post-Impressionism, primitivism, and Japanese art.
Following his graduation in 1909, Dawson became a draftsman at Holabird and Roche, a prominent Chicago design firm where he executed architectural and engineering projects while continuing to paint in his spare time. His transition from representation to abstraction occurred shortly thereafter, when he produced seven paintings composed entirely of biomorphic forms and hard-edged shapes––elements that revealed his penchant for mathematical order, numbers, structure, and geometric form. Painted during the early months of 1910, these groundbreaking oils appear to predate the contemporaneous abstractions of both Arthur Dove and Wassily Kandinsky––artists who shared Dawson’s proclivity for an art that reflected the inner spirit.
Dawson’s pioneering excursion into non-objective painting, however, was soon interrupted. In June 1910, he took a leave of absence from his job and sailed for Europe. Over the course of six months, Dawson studied the great cathedrals of the past and familiarized himself with the paintings of Old Masters such as Tintoretto, Rubens, Poussin, Turner, and Delacroix. One of the most eventful moments of his trip occurred in Paris, where he attended a soirée at the home of the American expatriate writer and collector Gertrude Stein, who bought Night Dream, one of his small panels, for 200 francs. It was the first painting Dawson had ever sold. His visit to Stein also provided him with the opportunity to see paintings by avant-garde artists such as Picasso and Cézanne.
Following his arrival in New York in early December 1910, Dawson extended his artistic connections by visiting the aforementioned Davies, who encouraged him in his work, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, a well-known visionary painter who he greatly admired. Returning to Chicago, Dawson moved away from the non-objective approach he had developed earlier that year and instead turned his attention to cubist figural works inspired by classical art and the compositions of Old Master paintings. Dawson’s skillful use of faceted planes and scintillating surfaces reveal his ability to synthesize aspects of both Cubism and Futurism.
Dawson’s preoccupation with reinterpreting the Old Masters within a cubist syntax lasted until late 1912, when he resumed his interest in creating abstractions devoid of recognizable imagery.