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A friend of Van Gogh: Dodge Macknight and the post-impressionists: despite being widely admired in his lifetime, the American artist Dodge Macknight is now largely forgotten. Martin Bailey reconstructs Macknight's life in Europe in the 1880s and 1890s, revealing new information about his famous friends, including Van Gogh and Sisley.

Although the American artist Dodge Macknight currently languishes in obscurity, he was once a friend of many of the impressionists and post-impressionists. Macknight, who was born in 1860 and died in 1950, studied and worked in France from 1884 to 1897, and the untold story of his early years throws new light on his more famous contemporaries. At one point he was close to Van Gogh, who suggested that Macknight should move into the Yellow House in Aries with him, before the arrival of Gauguin. Macknight also knew Sisley, and a letter from him suggests that Sisley may have made a previously unrecorded visit to Cornwall.

Macknight was highly regarded, and in 1921 he was described by a British critic and enthusiast for the post-impressionists, Lewis Hind, as one of the world's four greatest modern watercolourists. (1) But apart from a privately published (and now scarce) book on Macknight written by Desmond FitzGerald in 1916, very little on him has appeared in print. (2) Since Macknight's death there have been only two exhibitions of his work, at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts in 1950 and the Heritage Hantation in Sandwich, Massachusetts, in 1980. (3)


Macknight himself downplayed his links with the impressionists and post-impressionists, and there is not a single mention of them in FitzGerald's book. Most of the material on his early contacts with these artists comes therefore from contemporary correspondence.

William Dodge Macknight was born on 1 October 1860 in Providence, Rhode Island. After leaving school, he worked as an apprentice scene painter for a local theatre. At Christmas 1883, at the age of 23, he sailed for France. In Paris he studied m the studio of Fernand Cormon (1845-1924), where he stayed until February 1886. Among his fellow students were Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard and Louis Anquetin, together with two artists whom he got to know particularly well, the Belgian Eugene Boch (1855-1941) and the Australian John Russell (1858-1931), who painted the only known portrait of Macknight (Fig. 4). (4) They played a key role in introducing Macknight to the Parisian avant-garde.


Van Gogh and Macknight were introduced through Russell in March 1886, the month that Van Gogh joined Cormon's studio, having arrived in Paris from Antwerp on 28 February 1886. Macknight left Paris soon afterwards, and then headed first for the south of France and later that year for the Algerian oasis of Ghardaia. (5)

Van Gogh remained in Paris for two years, and he frequently met Russell. (6) Russell's portrait of Van Gogh in the Van Gogh Museum (Fig. 5) is well known, but he also drew a series of five sketches of the Dutch artist, and these have never been published in the Van Gogh literature (Fig. 3). (7) Russell and Van Gogh also exchanged works, and an anonymous painting of a female nude now in the Van Gogh Museum has recently been identified as by Russell. (8)


Van Gogh arrived in Arles on 20 February 1888, and Macknight came to Provence a few weeks later, staying in the village of Fontvieille, north-east of Arles, which he had first visited three years earlier. The two men soon met up.

On 19 April 1888 Macknight wrote to his fellow Cormon student Boch: 'I have unearthed a couple of artists at Arles--a Dane [Christian Mourier-Petersen] --and a friend of [Viggo] Jastrau--and Vincent whom I had already met at Russell's--a stark, staring crank, but a good fellow.' (9) Mourier-Petersen also summed up Van Gogh's character in rather similar terras in a letter written to a Danish colleague a few weeks earlier: 'I thought he was mad at first, yet I am finding out gradually that there is method in his madness.' (10) These comments interestingly reveal much about the immediate impression that Van Gogh left on those who met him.

We also have Van Gogh's account of his meeting with Macknight and Mourier-Petersen, in a letter written in his slightly stilted English to Russell: 'Last Sunday [15 April] I have met Macknight and a Danish painter, and I intend to go to see him at Fonvieille [sic] next Monday [23 April]. I feel sure I shall prefer him as an artist to what he is as an art critic, his views as such being so narrow they make me smile.' (11) Macknight visited Van Gogh in Aries on both 22 April and 29 April, and on the second occasion he attended a bull fight in the Roman arena. (12)

It is often assumed that Van Gogh was artistically isolated in Aries until the arrival of Gauguin in October 1888. However, Van Gogh, Mourier-Petersen, Macknight and (a few weeks later) Boch formed a small circle of avant-garde artists, providing companionship and inspiration. Macknight quickly became friends with Van Gogh, who told his brother Theo that the American artist might move into the Yellow House. He had just taken a lease on the unfurnished premises, although he had not yet moved in. On 1 May he wrote: 'I could quite well share the new studio with someone, and I should like to. Perhaps Gauguin will come south? Perhaps I could come to some arrangement with McKnight [sic].' (13) Three days later he returned to the idea: 'It is not impossible that he [Macknight] may come to stay with me for some time with me here. I think we should both benefit by it.' (14)

Van Gogh probably first visited Fontvieille on 3 May. (15) Although there was a narrow-gauge railway from Aries, Van Gogh, who was constantly short of money and enjoyed walking, probably went on foot, setting out on the Route de Tarascon, where he frequently drew and painted, turning off to the ruined abbey of Montmajour, where he also worked. Fontvieille is slightly further on, nine kilometres from Aries. An attractive village, it had recently become well known as the site of the Moulin de Daudet, immortalised in Alphonse Daudet's collection of short stories Lettres de mon Moulin, published in 1869. Van Gogh, who admired Daudet, made a drawing that shows two of Fontvieille's windmills (Fig. 6). The Moulin Ribet (now known as the Moulin de Daudet) is prominent, with the Moulin Ramet on the horizon on the left. Although dated in the two Van Gogh catalogues raisonnes to summer 1888, a spring date is much more likely, since this was when he was closest to Macknight, and it may well have been drawn on his first visit, on 3 May. (16) Macknight tackled the same motif, in two unlocated watercolours. (17)


At the time Macknight was painting watercolour plein-air landscapes of Fontvieille. These include the unpublished Street with Pines, Fontvieille (Fig. 7), painted in the Cours Hyacinthe Bellon, looking westwards towards the church of St Pierre. Van Gogh first saw Macknight's work when he visited Fonwieille on 3 May, telling his brother: 'He has reached the stage where he is plagued by new colour theories, and while they prevent him from working on the old system, he is not sufficiently master of his new palette to succeed in this one. He seemed very shy about showing me the things.' (18) Macknight was at the point of developing his style, with his colours becoming more vivid. In late July 1888 Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo that Macknight had just finished some still lifes, 'a yellow pot on a violet foreground, a red pot on a green, an orange pot on blue, better, but very poor'." (19) A month later, Van Gogh painted one of his sunflower pictures with the orange flowers in a yellow pot, set against a turquoise blue background. (20) This suggests that Macknight and Van Gogh were exploring colour complementaries in tandem.


In mid June, Macknight was joined in Fontvieille by Boch, who was quickly introduced to Van Gogh. (21) Throughout the summer, the three artists often met, and Van Gogh was later to do a powerful portrait of Boch, whom he described as 'the poet'. (22)

Van Gogh and Macknight both frequented the brothels of Arles. In a sentence excised from the English edition of Van Gogh's published letters, the artist wrote on 8 July 1888: 'Macknight has caught a chancre [venereal ulcer] with a fat woman where quite by chance I went at the same time.' (23)

Relations between Van Gogh and Macknight had their ups and downs, and the two men often disagreed in their discussions on art (Van Gogh was to have very similar tensions with Gauguin a few months later). In late July Van Gogh told his brother Theo that Macknight would 'soon be making little landscapes with sheep for chocolate boxes'. (24) Nevertheless, they continued to meet, and on 8 August Van Gogh mentioned that Macknight was 'always dropping in'. (25)

In later years, Macknight only once mentioned his friendship with Van Gogh in print, in a newspaper interview conducted on 20 March 1913. He recalled: 'I was a contemporary of Van Gogh and [Emile] Bernard. I saw a great deal of the former at Aries when he was making landscapes. He was an interesting fellow and when he felt like it very companionable. But he was moody and quarrelsome, especially if any one did not agree with his opinions about art. He was perfectly sincere.' (26) Despite the brevity of this comment, it sums up how Van Gogh seems to have been viewed by his friends.

There is also a passing reference to Van Gogh in the catalogue of the 1950 Boston exhibition, with information that presumably came from the artist. Its curator, Dorothy Adlow, who knew Macknight well, recorded: 'When his Dutch friend in a moment of frantic need offered him a painting of flowers for a few francs, Dodge Macknight gave him the francs, and told him to keep the picture ... He remembered van Gogh as a queer fellow with pinched features, red hair and beard, given to friendliness and sullenness.' (27)

One can only speculate that Macknight may have downplayed his links with Van Gogh in order to avoid suggestions that he had been unduly influenced by the Dutchman's style and use of colour. Although there is no mention of Van Gogh in FitzGerald's book, the author does comment on Macknight's important stylistic development in the summer of 1888, particularly his use of colour. FitzGerald, who was close to Macknight, goes out of his way to say that this 'was not due to the influence of any other painter'--presumably an oblique reference to the by-then famous Van Gogh. (28)

Macknight left Fontvieille in late August 1888 for Moret-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau. At this point his relations with Van Gogh had cooled: Van Gogh commented that he was 'not sorry' about Macknight's departure. (29) Nevertheless, they kept in touch through Russell and Boch. For instance, Macknight heard about how Van Gogh mutilated his ear on 23 December 1888, bringing Gauguin's visit to an abrupt end. A few weeks later, Macknight posted a newspaper cutting about the incident to Boch, who was painting the coal mines of the Borinage in Belgium, with the encouragement of Van Gogh (who had worked there in 1878-80 as a missionary). (30)

In October 1889 Macknight wrote to Boch, saying that he was finding painting a challenge. He then quoted a phrase of Van Gogh's, and the context suggests it was a favourite allusion of the Dutch artist: 'I attack the paper, struggling like a lion.' (31) This was probably a reference to Delacroix, an artist much admired by Van Gogh, who was said to have painted 'like a lion'. (32)

Among other artists Macknight knew well was Sisley, whom he got to know in Moret-sur-Loing in 1884. Macknight introduced Sisley to Russell, who painted Madame Sisley on the Banks of the Loing at Moret in 1887. (33) This picture has not been reproduced in the Sisley literature (Fig. 8).


An intriguing reference in a letter from Macknight suggests that Sisley may have made a previously unrecorded visit to England. Writing to Boch in the autumn of 1888, Macknight mentions that he knew Sisley, who had told him that 'the weather in Cornwall in winter is wonderful'. (24) Sisley's parents were English, and he had lived in London in 1857-59, in his late teens. He later made two summer visits to Britain: to London in 1874 and the Isle of Wight in 1881. The reference in Macknight's letter suggests that he may also have been in England in the winter of 1887-88, or in a slightly earlier year. Although Sisley could have made a winter visit to Cornwall in 1857-59, it would have been surprising to have commented on the weather 30 years later and for Macknight to have then named him as his source. Had Sisley been passing on the comments of someone else with first-hand knowledge of the English climate, it is unlikely that Macknight would have cited him by name. Few of Sisley's letters survive, making it difficult to track his movements, and it is therefore possible that he did make an unrecorded visit to Cornwall in the 1880s, although this remains a speculation.

While based in Paris and Moret-sur-Loing, Macknight admired the work of the impressionists and post-impressionists, many of whom he knew personally. Among those mentioned in his correspondence are Monet, Renoir, Degas and Gauguin. (35) Toulouse-Lautrec also refers to Macknight in one of his letters. (36)

After his return from Fontvieille, and having spent a few weeks in Moret-sur-Loing, Macknight headed to Brittany in November 1888, following in the footsteps of Russell (who had first visited Belle-Ile two years earlier) and Monet (who had also been there in 1886). Russell had built his family home at Port Goulphar, on the island's rugged southwestern coast. (37) After his 1888 visit, Macknight returned to the island in the summers of 1889, 1890 and 1891, spending much time with Russell, and painting some of his finest watercolours (Fig. 2). On 20 June 1892 Macknight married Louise Queyrel, whom he had met on Belle-Ile.


Another of Macknight's friends was John Singer Sargent. In December 1890 Macknight visited London and Sargent invited him to hold an exhibition of 30 Belle-lie watercolours in his London studio. The two men kept in touch, and Sargent visited Macknight at his home in East Sandwich, Massachusetts, in 1916. (38)

Macknight had returned to America in 1897, with Louise and their young son, John. Three years later the family moved to East Sandwich, where Macknight stayed for the rest of his life. (39) Together with FitzGerald, his other major patron was Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Boston collector, who created a Macknight Room in her home, now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Macknight stopped painting after John's death in 1928. He died on 23 May 1950, at the age of 89, but by this time his fame had long been eclipsed by that of his Parisian colleagues. (40)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Jean-Francois Bouquelle, Hans Luijten, Claude-Guy Onfray, Ursula Prunster, Richard Shone, MaryAnne Stevens, Miriam Stewart, Louis van Tilborgh, Roelie Zwikker, and the staff at Archives de l'Art Contemporain en Belgique, Archives of American Art, Schlesinger Library (Harvard), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Harvard University Art Museums, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) and the Van Gogh Museum.

(1) C. Lewis Hind, Art and I, New York, 1921, pp. 98, 100-101 and 176. The other three were Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Hercules Brabazon Brabazon.

(2) Desmond FitzGerald, Dodge Macknight: Water Color Painter, Brookline, MA, 1916. FitzGerald owned 300 of his works and built a special gallery for them in his home in Brookline (the collection, which was later dispersed, is recorded in part in Paintings by the ImpressionistS: Collection of the late Desmond FitzGerald, exh. cat., New York, 1927).

(3) Dodge Macknight, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1950 and The Paintings of Dodge Macknight, exh. cat., Heritage Plantation, Sandwich, MA, 1980.

(4) The portrait was probably painted in 1887, since it was noted by Van Gogh before his departure from Paris in February 1888 (The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh [henceforth cited as Van Gogh Letters], London, 1958, volume ii, p. 547, letter 477a of c. 21 April 1888). The present location of the portrait is unknown, but when exhibited in 1980 at the Heritage Plantation (no. 68) it belonged to Mr and Mrs George W. Bruce of West Barnstable, MA (Mrs Bruce was Macknight's niece).

(5) FitzGerald, op. cit., p. 8, says Macknight left Cormon's in February 1886, although the 1950 Boston exhibition catalogue says the two artists met at Cormon's (p. 2). Macknight's letters suggest be may have left Cormon's in 1887 (Macknight to Boch, letter no. 11, 3 May 1887, photographic copies of letters in Archives d'Art Contemporain en Belgique, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels).

(6) For background on Russell, see Elizabeth Salter, The Lost Impressionist A Biography of John Peter Russell, London, 1976; Ann Galbally, The Art of John Peter Russell, Melbourne, 1977; Claude-Guy Onfray, Russell ou la lumiere en heritage, Paris, 1995; John Peter Russell, exh. cat., Musee des Jacobins, Morlaix, 1997; and Belle-lie: Monet, Russell & Matisse in Brittany, exh. cat., Art Gallery, of New South Wales, Sydney, 2001.

(7) The Russell sketches are on the same watermarked paper as two drawings of a male nude by Van Gogh: J.B. de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh, London, 1970, F1364-1-2, and Jan Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh, Amsterdam, 1996, JH1007-8. The Russell work was owned by Sir Robert Vere (Robin) Darwin, head of the Royal College of Art and great-grandson of Charles Darwin, and was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2003. See Hendrik Kolenberg and others, 19th Century Australian Watercolours, Drawings and Pastels, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2005. Van Gogh is depicted with a shaven head, as in an Aries self portrait of September 1888 (F476/JH1581), whereas in his Paris self-portraits he has hair. However, the Russell sketches must have been done in Paris, sometime between Van Gogh's arrival in February 1886 and his departure in February 1888.

(8) For the identification, see Ella Hendriks and Louis van Tilborgh, New Views on Van Gogh's Development in Antwerp and Paris, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, 2006, vol. i, p. 3, footnote 9. Russell was given 12 Van Gogh drawings after Van Gogh paintings (Colta Ives et. al., Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings, exh. cat., Metrpolitan Museum, New York, 2005, pp. 273-5), the painting Three Pairs of Shoes (Fogg Art Museum, F332/JH1234), the sketch Head of a Girl (Guggenheim Museum, New York, F1507a/JH1466) and the lithograph At Eternity's Gate (F1662/JH268).

(9) Macknight to Boch, no. 28, 17 April 1888, loc. cit. This quote was first cited in Martin Bailey, 'Drama at Aries', APOLLO, September 2005 (vol. CLXII, no. 523), p. 31.

(10) Letter from Mourier-Petersen to Johan Rohde, March 1888 (Johan Rohde collection, Royal Libra,; Copenhagen, quoted in Merete Bodelsen, Gauguin and Van Gogh in Copenhagen in 1893, exh. cat., Ordrupgaard Collection, Copenhagen, 1984, p. 29).

(11) Van Gogh Letters, volume ii, p. 547 (no. 477a to Russell, c. 21 April 1888). It appears that Van Gogh did not visit Fontvieille on 23 April, but instead Macknight saw him in Aries on 22 April.

(12) Van Gogh Letters, volume ii, p. 551 (no. 479 to Theo, c. 24 April 1888) and Macknight to Boch, no. 30, 4 May 1888, loc cit.

(13) Van Gogh Letters, vol. ii, p. 555 (no. 480 to Theo, 1 May 1888).

(14) Van Gogh Letters, vol. ii, p. 556 (no. 481 to Theo, c. 4 May 1888).

(15) Ibid.

(16) De la Faille, op. cir., no. F1496 (July 1888) and Hulsker, op. cit., no. JH1496 (summer 1888). Although another windmill drawing (F1464/ JH1497) is placed next to the Fontvieille drawing in the Hulsker catalogue, it probably depicts a site on the outskirts of Aries.

(17) Windmill on the Hill--Fontvieille and Windmill al Fontvieille, Macknight exhibition, Doll & Richards, Boston, 1889 (nos. 22 and 28). One of these works was also shown in 'The Impressionists', held at Hampton College, Louisville, Kentucky in 1893 (the exhibition also included seven Monets, although it is unrecorded in Daniel Wildenstein, Monet: Catalogue Raisonne, Cologne, 1996, vol. iv, p. 1017).

(18) Van Gogh Letters, vol. ii, p. 556 (no. 481 to Theo, c. 4 May 1888).

(19) Van Gogh Letters, vol. ii, p. 621 (no. 514 to Theo, c. 25 July 1888).

(20) Sunflowers, Neue Pinakothek, Munich (F456/JH1561).

(21) For information on Boch, see Hommage a Anna et Eugene Boch, exh. cat., Musee de Pontoise, 1994 and Visions du Hainaut industriel, d'Eugene Boch a la Photographie, exh. cat., Musee Ianchelevici, La Louviere, 2000.

(22) Portrait of Eugene Boch, Musee d'Orsay, Paris (F462/JHI574).

(23) The phrase is in the Dutch version of the letters: Han van Crimpen and Monique Berends-Albert, De Brieven van Vincent van Gogh, The Hague, 1990, vol. iii, p. 1603, no. 641 to Theo, 8 July 1888.

(24) Van Gogh Letters, vol. ii, p. 622 (no. 514 to Theo, c. 25 July 1888).

(25) Van Gogh Letters, vol. iii, p. 5 (no. 519 to Thco, 8 August 1888).

(26) The report appears under the headline 'Lau's Dodge Macknight' in an unidentified newspaper report by 'WHD', published just after FitzGerald's book in 1916. It is reprinted in Susan Alyson Stein, I an Gogh: A Retrospective, New York, 1986, p. 108.

(27) 1950 exh. cat., pp. 2-3.

(28) FitzGerald, op. cir., p. 13.

(29) Van Gogh Letters, vol. iii, p. 21 (no. 528 to Theo, c. 27 August 1888).

(30) Macknight to Boch, no. 53, March 1889, loc. cit. This newspaper report was reproduced for the first time in Bailey, op. cit., p. 36.

(31) Macknight to Boch, no. 67, 20 October 1889, loc. cir. Macknight quoted Van Gogh in French: 'Je me rue sur le papier, je lutte comme un lion.'

(32) Van Gogh Letters, vol. iii, p. 509 (no. B14 to Bernard, c. 4 August 1888). The original reference to Delacroix is from the sculptor Auguste Preault, quoted in Jean Gigoux, Causeries sur les Artistes de mon Temps, Paris, 1885, p. 164 (my thanks to Hans Luijten for this reference).

(33) Salter, op. cit., p. 100.

(34) Macknight to Boch, no. 41 (25 October [?] 1888), loc. cir. Macknight's slightly incorrect French text read: 'Il dit que il fait un temps magnifique en Cornwall (Cornouaille?) (le midi d'Angleterre) en hiver' [the parentheses are in the original].

(35) Macknight to Boch, no. 43 (19 November [?] 1888) and no. 78 (19 November [?] 1890), loc cit. See also a letter from Macknight to Dorothy Adlow of late 1949, in which he recalls heating about Degas and Renoir (Adlow papers, Schlesinger Library; Harvard).

(36) Herbert D. Schimmel, The Letters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Oxford, 1991, p. 237, no. 346 to Boch, 21 February 1894.

(37) Van Gogh also considered going to Belle-Ile, but never did so (Van Gogh Letters, vol. ii, p. 620, no. 514 to Theo, c. 25 July 1888).

(38) Macknight to Boch, nos. 80 and 81 (date unclear and 3 February 1891), loc. cit. See also FitzGerald, op. cit., pp. 28, 76 and 102.

(39) Somewhat surprisingly, Macknight described himself in a lighthearted way as a 'punk painter' in 1908, presumably a self-deprecating reference to his miscreant ways (FitzGerald papers, Archives of American Art, microfilm p. 669).

(40) The largest collections of Macknight's work are at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, MA. Macknight first exhibited at Doll & Richards gallery, in Boston in 1888, and stayed with them for his entire career. For further information on Macknight, see the Macknight papers (particularly a scrapbook of press cuttings) and Desmond FitzGerald papers in the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art and the Adlow papers at the Schlesinger Library, Harvard.
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Title Annotation:Vincent Van Gogh, Alfred Sisley
Author:Bailey, Martin
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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