With two shows, Dow is having a moment

by Phillip Golden

With two area exhibits marking the 100th anniversary of his passing, it’s fair to say that Ipswich artist Arthur Wesley Dow is having a moment.

Celebrating the Life and Art of Arthur Wesley Dow: 1857-1922, which recently opened at the Ipswich Museum, and Arthur Wesley Dow: Nearest to the Divine, which runs through July 31 at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, both communicate the originality and durable attraction of Dow’s life and work.  

The Addison exhibit focuses on Dow’s woodblock and photographic works drawn from its own collection and select on-loan works. 

The Ipswich Museum exhibit casts a wider net over Dow’s creativity as well as his impact on art and art education.

Dow’s expertise in photography and painting are well represented, as are his work with more tactile crafts, such as woodblock printing, metalwork, and textile design.

Courtesy Ipswich Museum

The Ipswich Museum houses the world’s largest collection of Dow art and artifacts, says Stephanie Gaskins, museum president and Dow curator. 

“Our goal was to present the fullest picture of Arthur Wesley Dow,” she said. “Through his art, instructional texts, and his summer art schools in Ipswich, which attracted hundreds of artists each year, he helped to expand the minds of a whole generation of American artists.”

While the Ipswich exhibit features some beautiful art, it also digs deep into Dow’s creative process. 

With a specific work entitled Grand Canyon, exhibit-goers see not just the finished landscape but get a window into his approach. 

Courtesy Ipswich Museum

Viewers might easily imagine Dow, with his easel set up on the canyon’s rim, capturing the complex light and geological contours.  

But that was not to be. Rather than creating works plein air (on site), Dow used his own photography and created numerous small painted studies and technical drawings to pinpoint where the various colors and contours fell. 

Back in his Ipswich studio, he would use the supporting materials detailing the “smoky yellow iridescence, shadow crimson,” and other colors to create his masterpiece. 

Woodblock art, which was one of Dow’s earliest and most well-known mediums, figures prominently in the Ipswich exhibit. 

Courtesy Ipswich Museum

He considered woodblock as “painting with wooden blocks” and refined his skills throughout his life.

As a young assistant curator of Oriental art at Boston’s MFA in the 1890s, he set a foundation for his lifelong passion of synthesizing Eastern and Western art. 

The original woodblocks, paired with the the final printed works on display, again help exhibit-goers get a first-hand understanding of the artist at work.

In 1900, Dow and his wife, Minnie, a longtime collaborator, purchased the derelict Emerson House above Green Street Bridge to save it from destruction and, ultimately, expand annual summer art school for up to 200 artists each season. (Georgia O’Keefe, a student of Dow’s while at Columbia, credited Dow’s instruction as instrumental in her artistry.)

Courtesy Ipswich Museum

In addition to painting, students experimented with fabric design, printing, bookmaking, and metalwork.  Examples of these efforts, highlighted by two antique metal punch work lanterns, help to deepen our understanding of Dow — the artist, his influence, and the variety of his works.

Celebrating the Life and Art of Arthur Wesley Dow: 1857-1922 will run through October at the Ipswich Museum at 54 South Main Street. Hours and additional details can be found at ipswichmuseum.org.