Arthur Wesley Dow

born Ipswich, MA 1857-died New York City 1922
Also known as
  • Arthur W. Dow
Ipswich, Massachusetts, United States
New York, New York, United States
Active in
  • Detroit, Michigan, United States

Arthur Wesley Dow studied art in Paris. Upon returning to the United States, he became an important commercial designer. Although he designed relatively few posters, his works are important in terms of their stylistic innovations.

When Dow returned from Paris, he became acquainted with Ernest Fenellosa, curator of Oriental art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; this friendship led him to develop a deep interest in Japanese art. As a result, his own designs incorporated the Japanese linear approach to form as well as broad planes of mass and color. Not merely borrowing the forms and style of Japanese art, Dow sought a synthesis of Western and Eastern art. Landscape was of particular importance to Dow, and he executed a number of works based on studies of nature in Ipswich.

In addition to his accomplishments as an artist, Dow was an important educator. He taught at Pratt Institute and the Art Students League at the turn of the century.

Therese Thau Heyman Posters American Style (New York and Washington, D.C.: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with the National Museum of American Art, 1998)

Artist Biography

Arthur Wesley Dow, born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, was initially influenced by the Barbizon-inspired work of fellow Bostonian William Morris Hunt. In 1884, Dow traveled to Paris to study at the Académie Julian and to paint on the coast of Brittany.

On his return to Boston he taught for several years. In 1895, however, his career was transformed by a meeting with Ernest Fenollosa, curator of the unrivaled collection of Oriental art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Fenollosa introduced him to the wonders of the "floating world" (ukiyo-e), the great woodblock prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai, and opened up to him the recondite center of Japanese art: the conviction that art need not imitate nature but should develop organically from the formal abstract relationships of line, hue, and tone.

At about this time French painter Maurice Denis pronounced his famous dictum, which has since been regarded as a key to the contemporary aesthetic of painting: "Remember that a picture—before a war horse or a nude woman or an anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order." Perhaps more forthright than the Oriental statement, but much to the same purpose.

Dow continued to teach and disseminate his newly discovered aesthetic principles. In 1899 he published Composition, which provided students with a series of exercises that taught the manipulation of line, color, and tonal relationships within a composition. In 1903 he became head of the art department at Columbia University Teachers College, which further spread his ideas across the country, influencing the first generation of American modernist painters. It is not unlikely that his authority and impact as teacher greatly superseded his importance as a painter, a destiny that also found such luminaries as Benjamin West before him and Robert Henri after.

Emery Battis Artist Biographies for the exhibition American Impressionism: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2000)