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Manierre Dawson abstract art pioneer.


In 1910, when most artists were painting still lifes, landscapes, and human figures, art pioneer Manierre Dawson was painting circles, arches, numbers, and straight lines to produce compositions for the Modern Age--compositions no longer from the natural world but inventions of the mind. His abstract paintings of geometric patterns in vibrant colors were revolutionary.

A Chicago native and 55-year fruit farmer in Mason County, Michigan, Manierre Dawson was the first artist in America to move deliberately from representational painting that sought to copy nature and toward complete abstraction in its own right.

Manierre Dawson was born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 22,1887. He was the second of four sons born to George and Eva Dawson, and his interesting first name was in honor of his maternal grandfather, Edward Manierre. His father, George Sr., spoke six languages and practiced law in Chicago most of his life. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Michigan, where he was president of his class and lead tenor of the glee club. Dawson's mother, Eva, was also highly educated, fluent in German, and a distinguished pianist, having spent two years studying piano in Italy.

His parents' love of music no doubt influenced his art. Dawson often compared music to art by saying that to understand either, one had to "feel" the work. With his abstractions, he strove to evoke an emotional response from his viewers by painting expressions of colors and light rather than an accurate representation of his subject matter.


Throughout his life, Dawson was connected to Northern Michigan. In the 1890s, when most tourists bypassed the noisy lumber town of Ludington for quiet lakes further north, a roommate of George Sr.'s from the University of Michigan convinced him to take his family to the Ludington lakeshore. The Dawson family was among Ludington's first "summer resorters."

In 1903, when all the Dawson boys were in their teens, the family purchased a farm within the hills of Riverton Township, halfway between Ludington and Pentwater and close to Lake Michigan. Each year, the family traveled from Chicago to Ludington and stayed on the farm they called "the Humps" during the summer months. The retreat stayed in the Dawson family for the next 77 years.

It was there that Dawson learned fruit farming and building skills and also began eagerly practicing his art. He used cedar shakes from farm repairs to complete several of his earliest oil paintings. In the evenings, the family often climbed to the top of one of the Humps' hills to watch the sunset over Lake Michigan. The beautiful sunset colors of pinks, peaches, oranges, and creams became predominant in many of Dawson's abstracts.

Also seeded at this time was Dawson's love of the environment. Every April for ten consecutive years, George Sr. led his family in planting 2,000 white and red pine seedlings on the hills left barren by the lumbering years. In 1917, the U.S. Forest Service reported that the Humps was the largest privately owned plantation of pines in the entire state of Michigan, and by the time of his death, George Sr. was recognized as a pioneer of the reforestation movement. His love of the environment was one of the chief reasons Dawson decided to permanently move to the area later in life.




After graduating from high school, Dawson entered the Armour Institute of Technology--today the Illinois Institute of Technology--to pursue an engineering degree. Although he was eager to pursue art, his parents felt that civil engineering was the best career choice for their son, and he dutifully obliged. Art, however, remained his passion, and he painted energetically whenever he could find free time from his studies.

At Armour Tech, Dawson's engineering training introduced him to abstract principles that gready influenced his art. He began experimenting on a more sophisticated, progressive level and soon began capturing a completely modern spirit in his paintings. During his senior year of college in December 1908, he wrote in his journal, " ... now I feel I am beginning to grasp something that may eventually be of worth, certainly to myself and maybe to others."

In early 1910, Dawson emerged as the first artist in America to produce non-representational abstractions with a series of seven paintings. The bold abstractions contained principles from his engineering studies. Arches, circles, grids, and lines--some in muted tones and others in vibrant reds, yellows, oranges, greens, and blues--dominated those radical works. Perhaps the most famous of the seven is the triptych Prognostic, a section of which is on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum.


Because Dawson's twentieth-century modernism was so new and different, it challenged many viewers' preconceived ideas of art. Most who saw his work, even family members, thought it crazy and disgusting. Some even became angry.

Dawson soon found that he had to constantly defend his art. In April 1911, a year after he produced his first abstractions, he described in his journal how he explained his paintings to critics: "In trying to answer the questions that are repeatedly thrown at me, 'What does it mean?' 'What does it represent?' I have to start with [a] statement that sometimes helps, 'Art is a human invention ... in the seclusion of the mind we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else.' One answer to the question, 'What is it,' is to point to the picture and say, 'It is that.' 'It exists nowhere else.'"


Following his graduation from Armour Tech, Dawson began working at a prominent Chicago architectural firm called Holabird and Roche. When he was eligible for a leave of absence, he took a European tour under the guise of enhancing his skills in the engineering firm by studying old world art and architecture. However, once abroad, Dawson focused mainly on the art of the old masters by touring art museums throughout England, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany.

While in Europe, several very significant events occurred. In Siena, Italy, Dawson met a famed American painter, John Singer Sargent, who had painted more than 900 portraits of socialites and dignitaries. Dawson studied Sargent's painting techniques, showed the old master his work, and toured several galleries alongside him. It was truly thrilling to the young, aspiring artist to have a painter of such stature take an interest in him.

In Paris, Dawson met an American writer and art patron, Gertrude Stein. Carrying a letter of introduction given to him by a colleague in Chicago as well as one of his abstract pieces, Dawson visited her salon. He was delighted with her collection of European art hanging on the walls. Stein admired the painting that Dawson brought with him and asked to buy it. She was the first person to purchase one of Dawson's paintings, which always encouraged him even though very few of his works sold during his lifetime.


Dawson's tour abroad in Europe exposed him to new ideas and artistic styles that enhanced his creativity. After returning to Chicago, he began using European influences to develop his own unique style of "cubism" by reinventing some of the old masters' paintings.

Although he recast those European masterpieces into modern compositions, Dawson did not copy or imitate their style. Instead, he simplified and excluded details of the original by employing his own geometric style, which rendered the source almost unrecognizable. The Kalamazoo Institute of Art owns a painting from that time period titled Mother and Child, a recast of Michelangelo's Madonna and Child.

In 1913, the historic Armory Show, an International Exhibition of Modern Art, came to the United States. Dawson was invited by the president of the show, Arthur Davies, to submit his paintings when the exhibition opened in New York. He did not send any of his work because all of his best compositions were stored at the Humps in Michigan and unattainable during the winter months.

Another organizer of the show, Walter Pach, visited Dawson's studio in his parents' home when the Armory Show traveled to Chicago. There, he saw Dawson's painting, Wharf Under Mountain, and was so impressed by the piece he personally hung it in the show. It was the only completely non-objective abstraction in the American room.

Although most of the art in the show was for sale, few pieces sold, especially in Chicago. Dawson, however, recognized the importance of the European works and spent $220--all the money he had in his savings--on Marcel Duchamp's Sad Young Man on a Train and Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso's Return from the Chase. Those pieces hung in his farmhouse in Ludington for many years. Later in his life, Dawson donated Return From the Chase to the Muskegon Museum of Art.

After the Armory Show, Dawson left his architectural job to concentrate entirely on art. During that time, he produced a Hercules series of three paintings that were inspired by a newly purchased Duchamp painting. Those were the last known compositions where Dawson used classical studies as a motif to create his own cubist style. One in the series, Hercules II, now hangs in the Grand Rapids Art Museum.


The following year, 1914, Dawson was invited to participate in two major exhibitions. He joined 13 other progressive artists in "The Fourteen Exhibition." Afterward, he displayed his work in "The Modern Spirit" exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Society Gallery.

The organizers of "The Fourteen Exhibition" specifically requested Wharf Under Mountain, which was now snowed in at the Humps. Determined not to have a repeat of the Armory Show, Dawson made plans to take the train from Chicago to Pentwater in the middle of winter to retrieve his painting from the family farm. Dawson described his exhausting trek in his journal, dated January 10,1914:

"I have returned from the Humps with 'Wharf.' At Pentwater, the end of the [Pere] Marquette line snow was a foot deep. Never have I put in such a grueling day of walking thru snow, deeper, and deeper, and deeper as I walked into the hills. My cold wet feet kept from freezing by the steady tramp. This was an eighteen mile walk. It took 8 hrs. There wasn't anything to fix as a cover for the painting without making it heavy and bulky, so, with it wrapped in newspaper I carried till, dead tired, I reached the train 5 min. before it took off in the evening. I have shipped it by express today. Too late for the catalog but it will be in the show at the Montross in February."




Now 26 years old and without a job or income, Dawson deliberated his life's course and decided that pursuing a desk job in the city was not for him. He decided he wanted a livelihood that would allow him to follow his artistic passions and came to the realization that he was always happiest at the Humps in the rural hills close to Lake Michigan. He thrived on the physical labor of the farm, and Michigan's natural beauty fed his creative spirit. Dawson began thinking that fruit farming may be the perfect fit for him since he could work the summer months in the orchards and spend all winter painting.


While he contemplated his future, Dawson met Lillian Boucher at a neighborhood ice cream social and immediately fell in love. Around the same time, a local fruit farm that bordered his family's summer home went on the market. Dawson borrowed money from his father to purchase the farm, calling it Southedge. He married Lillian the following summer of 1915, and together the couple raised three children at Southedge.

In the early years on the farm, Dawson was often frustrated by the lack of time he had to practice art. The winters that he envisioned with months to spend exclusively on painting were instead filled with farm chores--chopping wood and filling the wood stoves; feeding horses, cows, and chickens; repairing farm equipment; and trimming trees in the orchards in preparation for spring.

After six years on the farm, he declared in his journal that "farming is a hell of a thing to get into." Nevertheless, he painted enthusiastically during any spare moments he could find and continued to produce remarkably progressive works of art.

Dawson also began producing sculptures once he moved to the farm in Michigan. He spent long hours trimming tree branches, which inspired many of the sculptures he produced during the winter months. He also found that he could sculpt during the few hours between evening chores and bedtime because wood and chisels were much easier to leave overnight and required less maintenance than paint brushes and oils.


In his later years, Dawson finally found the time he needed to create art. After his children had grown and modern inventions helped ease farm chores, he built an art studio at Southedge and spent countless hours producing sculptures and paintings. In 1952, Ludington Public Library dignified its walls with the works of its hometown artist. Dawson's paintings also appeared in several exhibitions in Sarasota, Florida, where he and Lillian vacationed during the winter months.

A few years before his death in 1969, Dawson's art began receiving national attention. In 1966, the Grand Rapids Art Museum offered an exhibit that featured a substantial amount of his work. Displays in the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, the Norton Gallery and School of Art in Palm Beach, and the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery in New York City followed. Dawson was even scheduled for a taped interview with the Smithsonian Institute, though he died before the interview could take place.

Although Dawson's bold, radical abstracts never resulted in critical acclaim during his lifetime, he died cognizant of the high regard his art was generating. After turning over the keys of Southedge to its new owners a few months before his death,

Dawson told them, "I won't be famous in my lifetime. I'm not sure how famous I will be in your lifetime, but by the time you have grandchildren, I will be quite famous."

Today, his paintings and sculptures grace the walls of more than 30 major museums across the country, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York City; the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.; and the Art Institute of Chicago. In Michigan, his art is housed at the Muskegon Museum of Art, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Kalamazoo Institute of Art, and Manierre Dawson Gallery at West Shore Community College.

Several books have also brought new attention to Dawson and his work. After studying Dawson's work for well over 15 years, art historian Dr. Randy Ploog and co-author Myra Bairstow documented and catalogued in 2011 all of his known works, which shed new light on the innovator of abstract art. In addition, a biography of the artist, Manierre Dawson: Inventions of the Mind was published in 2012. Furthermore, both the Muskegon Museum of Art and the Kalamazoo Institute of Art displayed major exhibitions of Dawson's work in 2015.

Since his death, the name Manierre Dawson is gradually finding its rightful place in history--but why was he ignored for so long? According to art historian Dr. Henry Adams, Dawson's work was "overlooked--evidendy because it was so visually startling, so far in advance of its time, that for decades viewers were simply bewildered by Dawson's achievements. It seemed that he had been just too far ahead of the game to be understood."

Today, the modern world has finally caught up with America's maverick in abstract art and has begun a new appreciation for Dawson's creative passion and artistic vision. Since his death, more than a hundred exhibitions throughout the country have showcased his work. Manierre Dawson's oeuvre is an inspiration to American Modernism.


Sharon Bluhm first became captivated with Manierre Dawson and his art in 1977 when she purchased the Dawson family vacation home in the orchard country of Ludington, Michigan, where she continues to live today. She is professor emeritus at West Shore Community College, was instrumental in the establishment of the Manierre Dawson Gallery at the college, and is the author of Manierre Dawson: Inventions of the Mind, a recipient of a 2013 Historical Society of Michigan State History Award.


Caption: House at Bridge, 1910. Oil on wood panel. 10 x 15 in. (Photo courtesy of West Shore Community College. Gift of Peter Lockwood, 2010.)

Caption: The Dawson family summer home in "the Humps" in Ludington, Michigan, circa 1904. (Photo courtesy of the Manierre Dawson Estate.)

Caption: Hercules II, 1913. Oil on canvas. 36 x 28 in. (Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Museum Purchase, Dorothy and Scott Gerber Fund and Sam and Janene Cummings, 2006.)

Caption: Looking South from the Humps Hill, 1903. Oil on wood panel. 4 7/8 x 7 1/8 in. (Photo courtesy of private collector.)

Caption: Mother and Child, 1912. Oil on canvas. 40 x 32 in. (Photo courtesy of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Gifted by Mr. and Mrs. Donald S. Gilmore.)

Caption: Afternoon II, 1913. Oil on canvas. 17 1/2x24 1/4 in. (Photo courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art. Gift of the artist 1969.)

Caption: John Singer Sargent, a well-nown American painter, took an interest in Dawson early in his career. (Photo courtesy of J.E. Purdy.)

Caption: American writer Gertrude Stein was the first person to purchase one of Dawson's paintings. (Photo courtesy of the George Eastman House Collection.)

Caption: Manierre Dawson outside his studio at Southedge, his fruit farm, in Ludington, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the Manierre Dawson Estate.)

Caption: Untitled (Labyrinth), 1955. Composite wood. 28 x 48 in. (Photo courtesy of West Shore Community College. Gift of the artist, 1969.)

Caption: Manierre Dawson in his Ludington, Michigan, studio in 1966. (Photo courtesy of the Manierre Dawson Estate.)
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Author:Bluhm, Sharon
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2016
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