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Preston Dickinson

American, 1891 - 1930

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His new still lifes have a grace, a precision, and an elegance that are remarkable. In modern art it is rare to see so high a finish carried out with complete gusto to the end.1

During the 1920s Preston Dickinson (1891 - 1930) enjoyed considerable success, although he was constantly challenged by financial difficulties because of his peripatetic inclinations, nervous temperament, and excessive lifestyle. Born in Greenwich Village, the son of an interior decorator and sign painter, he was subsidized by a patron for study at the Art Students League (1906-10) and travel to Europe (1910/11-14).2 Talent as well as charm, good looks,3 and perhaps an entrepreneurial nature also led to Dickinson's early sponsorship by future New York gallery owner Charles Daniel, who purchased some of the young artist's work even before he left on his trip abroad. Daniel included Dickinson among his stable of artists after he opened his gallery in 1913. Dickinson was far from immune to the spectacular impact of modern art in Paris on American artists during the teens, although he would always claim that the art in the Louvre was his most important influence. Like many of his contemporaries in Paris, he studied at the Académie Julian and in 1912 exhibited his work at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon des Artistes Français. While he was not among the Americans who frequented the salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein, he was a friend of Charles Demuth, whose distinctive profile he included in a drawing.4 Among the moderns, Paul Cézanne and Juan Gris were Dickinson's particular favorites, but his interests were wildly eclectic, ranging from Japanese prints and Persian miniatures to German Expressionism and American Synchromism-styles that were in tune with his enduring fascination with pattern and design and his unusual sense of color.

Still-life subjects gave Dickinson a golden opportunity to revel in his penchant for complex compositional construction, diverse objects, detailed patterning, as well as odd combinations of color. Still Life, No. 3 is one of a group of handsome undated pastels he made about 1924. Typically, he included a rectangular element, such as a picture frame or, as here, a chair back, which and books on a tabletop. The flat, cropped book covers intruding at angles along the left edge of the composition imitate a device frequently seen in Japanese prints. However, the spatial arrangement of objects derives from Cubism, particularly the still lifes of Gris, though Dickinson never achieved Gris's compositional clarity. Often, Dickinson employs more than one vantage point for his still-life arrangements:5 here, the tabletop, plate of fruit, books, and salt shaker are viewed from above, while the bottle of wine, the chair back, and the two covered vessels in front of it are presented frontally. More complex is the way that objects are combined and merged, such as the white vessel whose right profile appears to extend into the plate in front of it, while the darker vessel to the left seems to float above a tiny triangular piece of tablecloth that becomes an extension of the blue cloth draped over the plate of fruit. Seen as a whole, the spatial and formal ambiguities of this picture seem oddly unified by the busy visual patterning created by the variegated surfaces of the objects-all of them rendered in soft, mottled patches of blues, browns, purples, and yellows.

Through his association in the 1920s with the Daniel Gallery, which championed Precisionism, Dickinson's quasi-abstract, quasi-Cubist style has traditionally been linked with the Precisionists, including Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Niles Spencer, and Peter Blume, with whom he showed at the Daniel Gallery. Like them, Dickinson focused on views of industrial complexes, city- and landscapes, and still lifes, only rarely including figures in his work. But in Dickinson's hands, those subjects often lost the proud, robust spirit that characterizes Precisionism. Rather than using hard-edged, simplified forms and color, Dickinson's works can often seem soft and insubstantial, his compositions and colors decorative and overwrought, at times exuding a feeling of coldness, detachment, and even empty superficiality.6 Still, his work enjoyed generally positive critical reception; seventeen of his works, including Still Life, No. 3, were acquired by Ferdinand Howald, the distinguished collector of modern art and an important client of the Daniel Gallery.7

Innis Howe Shoemaker, from Adventures in Modern Art: The Charles K. Williams II Collection (2009), pp. 130-132.

1. Henry McBride, "Notes and Activities," New York Sun, April 26, 1924, sec. 6, p. 3.
2. There is little biographical information about Dickinson. The principal publication on him is Ruth Cloudman, Preston Dickinson, 1889 - 1930, exh. cat. (Lincoln: Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, in collaboration with the Nebraska Art Association, 1979).
3. Ibid., p. 18, quotes Charles Daniel on Dickinson's appearance: "when he left [for Paris] he was the handsomest boy I ever saw in my life."
4. Café Scene with a Portrait of Charles Demuth (1912-14) is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is reproduced in ibid., p. 68, no. 3.
5. Abraham A. Davidson, Early American Modernist Painting, 1910 - 1935 (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), p. 208.
6. In 1931, the year after Dickinson's death, Samuel M. Kootz published a severe critique of his work that concluded: "The record he has left us is of an undigested, impersonalized glimpsing of the exterior of a very important movement in art." See Kootz, "Preston Dickinson," Creative Art, vol. 8 (May 1931), pp. 339-40, at 340.
7. Howald gave the pastel to the Columbus Museum of Art in 1931; it was sold by the museum in 1980.

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