Sunday, January 31, 2016

Arthur Wesley Dow, and a disjointed ramble through late Victorian design fads.

The above illustration is from a book "Composition; Line, Notan, and Color by Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922)  who lived in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He studied in the 1880's in France at the Academie Julian and with Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. He trained alongside both Edmund Tarbell and Willard Metcalf  .Upon his return to Boston, he began studying the Boston Museum's great collection of Asian art, particularly Japanese prints. For a time he was actually the assistant curator of those. Dow opened a teaching studio in Ipswich, the surroundings must have made it a great place to study, Ipswich has more standing architecture from the 1600's than any other town in America. Here is a photo of what it looked like then.

Here is a photo of Dows home, where he taught summer workshops.

Dow as a teacher was concerned about the emphasis on realistic description that dominated the art instruction of the day. He, like Whistler, supported a more artistic approach based on the parts of painting apart from actual representation. Color was one of those, not transcribing color as it sat before the artist in nature, but building inventive and deliberate arrangements of color. But his greatest concern was with composition.Dow spent a lot of time studying not only Japanese prints but oriental rugs, Arabic script, and decorative arts from around the world. He became an exponent of the Arts and Crafts movement.

To place Dow in context I am going to show some Arts and Crafts history real quick.This was a late 19th century to early 20th century return to simpler handmade , (or handmade looking) decorative objects which often made a point of showing their construction. Below is an example of an arts and crafts interior. 

Along with this style came a great surge of interest in design, and particularly pattern design as might be found in fabrics and wallpaper. William Morris (1834-1896) was a Scottish designer who was a leader in the Arts and Crafts movement. Below is an example of several of his influential wallpaper designs.

Many of the ideas underpinning this style came from James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) who advocated "art for arts sake" That is, art was to be beautiful because of what it looked like, rather than having a purpose, like advancing a political or sociological agenda. Its whole purpose was its appearance, not a moral to be taught or a narrative. The earliest phase of these ideas were mostly manifested in the decorative arts and architecture. Owen Jones (1809-1874) published in 1856 "A Grammar of Ornament". This was a profusely illustrated catalogue of ornamental designs from all cultures and periods. Artists and designers plundered the book for the rest of the century, mixing and matching styles and patterns to create the Victorian styles, of which the aesthetic period was a late variation, This style was only popular for the 1880's.  Below is an example of aesthetic movement design, Whistler's Peacock Room, from 1877. Below that is an example of aesthetic period furniture.

There were also enormous amounts of Japanese influenced pottery produced in Staffordshire, England that was modestly priced, mass produced, and ubiquitous for that short period. Below is an example of that. If you are looking for something to collect, e-bay is full of affordable examples today.

There was also a fad for designing "tiles". The artists of the day were very interested in decorative design and made and exchanged small square painted tiles of geometric and naturalistic abstract design. There were clubs started where artists would do these designs together and often present them to one another. This became a fad, but was seen as a good way to build design skills. Here is an example of that from Dow's book.

 See? we are back with Arthur Dow! The book is a lesson plan for teaching design and is full of suggested exercises. He leads his readers through increasingly complex design ideas. The earliest lessons are about linear design, but as he continues, he leads into Notan. Notan is an idea that Dow borrowed from the Japanese that means designing images in several flat values in a tonal manner. It is rather like thumbnailing as a means of arriving at the arrangement of a picture. This is a purely art for arts sake system, as it is not about transcribing nature, although it may incorporate natural forms. The idea is to create an arrangement of shapes that is beautiful in and of itself, rather than because of its skillful reproduction of a scene before the artist.

Above is an example of the simplified Notan sketches that Dow advocated. As you can see he is pushing a single picture idea through various treatments of value and arrangement, looking for an artistic presentation of his subject. They are all of the same house and tree but with different value arrangements and different "treatments" had by varying his interest in different parts of the image. Some emphasize the tree for instance and others the architecture. In some he switches the values about at will using a dark tree in one and a high value tree in another.

His values and drawing are slaved to his design!

Here is an example of Edgar Payne,in his book "composition of outdoor painting" a generation later espousing the same ideas.

Dow's book is available still, reprinted by Dover. Here is a link to that. It can also be read online at archive. org  here is a link to that.


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The annual dreaded Snowcamp workshop returns to the Inn on Sunset Hill, above Franconia, New Hampshire. I will be teaching on Saturday the 5th through Monday the 7th of March 2016. This is my favorite thing I do every year. You can join the group for an intense ( to say the very least) workshop overlooking the White Mountains. The views are enormous and we will paint from the grounds of the hotel itself. That means no caravanning around in cars. I teach all the aspects of landscape painting besides just snow painting and in the evenings I do a power point presentation on designing paintings and the history of landscape painting. This is a breakfast till bedtime workshop. We do nothing else for three days. I will work you like a borrowed mule.

The 150 year old inn is as New England as can be, it is under new ownership and is the ideal place to do a workshop. We will take our meals there. I generally park my car in the lot and leave it there until the workshop is over.

 If it is actually snowing there is an enormous covered back porch that overlooks the mountains on which we can paint . The camaraderie is wonderful and many students repeat year after year. I limit the class to about a dozen, so if you want to come, sign up using the button below. I is required that you stay in the inn to participate in the workshop. Before you sign up you probably want to call them first and book your room. Their phone number is 603-823-7244, they have a special package rate for my students.