Edwin Dickinson on Hawthorne Smithsonian Institution Interview

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Edwin Dickinson Interview Transcript

This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Edwin W. Dickinson, 1962 Aug. 22, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Interview with Edwin Dickinson
Conducted by Dorothy Seckler
In Provincetown, Massachusetts
August 22, 1962


The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Edwin Dickinson on August 22, 1962. The interview was conducted in Provincetown, MA by Dorothy Seckler for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.



DS: This is Dorothy Seckler interviewing Edwin Dickinson at Provincetown on August 22. Mr. Dickinson, we agreed that you have some reminiscences of your study with William M. Chase that would be interesting to students of art history, and I think it would be very helpful if you could think back to the early time at the Art Students League when you entered his class, or perhaps begin by giving us a little background as to how you happened to go to the League in the first place; how you decided to become an artist and to come to the League to study.

ED: I had failed at something previous to deciding to become a professional art student, full-time art student. I had always drawn more than other boys and it was suggested that I become an artist. I agreed, and entered Pratt Institute to draw from the antique in the fall of 1910. The following year, the fall of 1911, I was living in Manhattan and decided to go to the Art Students League, which was the premier school of the country — had been for a long while and was so considered, I believe. I chose to study with William B. Chase who was one of the instructors at the school.

DS: Was he about the best known at that time at the League?

ED: Oh, yes, very much. He didn’t criticize twice a week as the others did. And they were glad to get him once a week, and so were we. The other crack man with whom to study at that time was Robert Henri. I chose Chase without knowing what was, perhaps, the greater suitability for me in studying with Henri. I didn’t know. And I’ve never thought that I chose wrong. Either one would have done well. I wanted to go to the League. It was the big prestige school in the professional art student’s horizon. People came from the Art Institute of Chicago and from other places to the League. And they still do, though many other schools now make it less the chief school than formerly.

DS: Of course, you’re an art teacher at the League yourself.

ED: I’ve taught there for a good many years part time — all the instructors are part time.

DS: Yes. Can you recall your first impressions of meeting Mr. Chase in the class?

ED: Oh, yes. In the fall of 1911, following my year at the antique at Pratt Institute, I entered the League and drew from life in the morning, and painted in the Chase class in the afternoon, which was in two parts: Chase portrait and Chase still life. I entered the still-life class and painted a still life “premier coup” every day for seven months. Mr. Chase came once a week, on Friday, I believe, and was much listened to. I well recall his first appearance, my first view of him. It was known on what day he was to come. It was probably several days after the class began in the fall, probably on a Friday. We waited anxiously, those of us to whom he was new, for what would be his footsteps coming down the hall, and of course it would always be somebody else. But finally in he walked, looking brisk, with big mustachios and beard, and the ring, the tie, well-dressed, and a cocktail on his breath. His first words, as he looked around at the class, were, “All new faces.” Which is not an important remark, but because he made it, we all, I daresay, remember it. I do. He went from easel to easel. It was entirely in oil; all the students worked in oil. And almost all of them “premier coup.” We did, in other words, six a week, five or six, five. Many of which we painted out, and some of which we might work on a second time, though usually not. He stopped at each easel conscientiously. The piece was not elaborately drawn because “premier coup” you can’t draw much and have the requisite painting time left over. But if your handling of the ellipses as of their indication of ellipticalness showed that you didn’t understand the ellipse, he wouldn’t make any remark on the painting, because the drawing indicated that you had better learn more about some essentials in the drawing before his advice on your painting was to be of use to you. He wouldn’t look at it if it was not well enough drawn to make a promising beginning, as it were. The edges didn’t have to be neat or anything of that kind, but the least strike toward an elliptical shape, however roughly done, shows immediately whether it’s a comprehended affair or not.

DS: In terms of perspective particularly, or in terms of . . . ?

ED: Well, the ellipse — its perspective doesn’t enter in because it’s the circle in perspective, and it’s a circle in contradistinction to the oval, which of course is never circular. But the ellipse is the circle in perspective, and its proportions are determined by the position relative to the observer’s eye. If one’s drawing showed that one was more or less on the make, Mr. Chase required nothing more and gave you the criticism on the piece as a painting and polychrome.

DS: Do you remember an early criticism of one of your own still-life paintings, or the kind of criticism that he would typically make in terms of the lighting or color?

ED: I do remember one. I had done a head; I had not yet painted a head, but I had done one outside of class, of some fellow student or something, and I guess he saw it. He looked at me rather astonished and said, “Why, she’s a giantess!” And that was the end of that.

DS: Did you have anything to do with the way a subject was set up or did the students themselves do that?

ED: No. Everybody did it for himself. The class was made up of people of dissimilar backgrounds in length of practice, different lengths of practice, some of them somewhat experienced, and others brand new, as I. The class constitution was helter-skelter. There was a fellow who was the crack rifle shot of the country at one time. Another was a circus performer, a young Englishman. And there were others. The young circus performer had not caught on that you must never address Mr. Chase except to ask what you considered an important question, and he would probably answer it. But he hadn’t caught that; he hadn’t had any background. With his very first painting he asked Mr. Chase to look at it, or put it on his easel. It was a painting of a lion with a frame around it, and over the frame were screwed bars so that the lion was behind the bars. Of course that was considered a big joke by the more sophisticated people who saw that Griff, the English acrobat, didn’t know what kind of a thing to bring up. And when Chase looked at it he said, “Where are you from?” And Griff said, “I’m from the land of great painters.” Chase said, “Where’s that?” Griff said, “England!” Everybody laughed.

DS: Particularly since Chase had studied in Germany — Munich. That made it all the more pointed.

ED: At the end of the week we handed out our pieces, saved almost none, and during the following weeks did other sets.

DS: Did he talk much about the way you use the brush in applying the color or the pigment?

ED: Yes. He liked stylish brushwork, he himself being a practiser of the native gift in sweet brushwork. In the case of that as a thing recommended or given much importance to by him in criticizing work showing or not showing that quality, he never let it be considered that brushwork without work of the more serious superiorness in color and in form as being the thing that was carried by the brushwork, he never let it be that the brushwork would hide any sins. His own work, so stylish, was marked for thoroughness in his still lifes with the fish and without, and his drawings from the nude, and his heads and so forth, was never let go with attractive brushwork not about something more important than it, by a good deal.

DS: Mmhmm. Did he have the students build up forms in values first, or work directly with color?

ED: Oh, there was no time in “premier coup” to do any underpainting of any kind. And nobody attempted it. We all painted just to go to work on “premier coup.”

DS: Was that a fairly new way of working, rather radical at the time? Or was it pretty much an accepted procedure — the “premier coup?”

ED: Well, the “premier coup” had come from France in about 1880, I suppose — the strike in the out-of-doors.

DS: But he had, of course, not accepted Impressionist color. Was there any question of blue shadows and that sort of thing?

ED: We didn’t know what would have been his remarks had we been painting in the field, because we were indoors. And the blue shadow is, of course, occurring out-of-doors as of a color understood as having been seen, than indoors.

DS: Yes.

ED: Color indoors is, of course, absolutely unpredictable. And outdoors too. Although there is seemingly a greater repetitiousness of blue shadows in the sun on light or white surfaces, or a post on the sand, any of those things. Does my turning toward you make any difference?

DS: What kind of color did he seem to favor, and how did he help you to see color in painting?

ED: I don’t think he helped us particularly. I never recall any remarks that were to show his finger in directing us to do other than the best we could from the occasion of piece work, the experience of that piece. The objects which we painted — many white objects, and dark ones, and copper and brass, and fruit if you wanted to bring it in, or anything you wanted, an antique cast, anything — the color was how you carried it out. And if the color, passage to passage, or in the piece as a whole involved inharmoniousness, I think one would have heard from it. With the subject matter being as gray as much of it was, there was less strikingness of clashing rather raw colors than if the key had been raised or the pieces had been pointed out-of-doors with the sun on the canvas, a cardinal principle of the development of a colorist.

DS: Was he vary particular about the position of your canvas in relationship to a source of light?

ED: I don’t recall his saying anything about it. But there were people of some experience in the class and everybody caught right away that the position in which they could see most brightly illuminated without glint their own passages as they put them down was the correct position for the canvass to be in, relative to the light, and with whatever modifications necessary towards the rights of other people in a crowded class. The problem was easier of tumbling to than in less well constructed studios of the Paris-room style, because the light was high and inclined at the proper fifteen degrees from the vertical. It was pretty easy to get the correct light without having to tip the easel forward, which of course foreshortens the canvas. The high light is the light in which the angle or incidence is securable without loss, easily, and the high north light as the only light, is the simplest light playing on objects and gives more bolt to the area to the shadow and the halftone passages than would be the case with a light low down coming slantwise across a room with lights from other directions at the same time.

DS: Yes.

ED: There hasn’t been anything about the changes in subject matter of art, or the way in which nature or invention may be treated by the artist that makes a room of inferior light to the great studio light a better thing. I don’t believe it is true. There is a dignity to the simplicity of the light with the increase in the area of shadow in the halftone versus the area of light which probably should be in the preponderance, but not by the amount that it is in a room facing a window low down.

DS: Yes.

ED: There are no cast shadows except on the side away from the window; none on the supporting surface, such as the table, the floor, under the model’s feat, whatever it be.


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