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Arthur Wesley Dow: The Poetry of Nature Transformed

Arthur Wesley DowWhen Arthur Wesley Dow died in 1922, he was called a great teacher. He had the knack for showing artists how to translate the poetry of nature into exquisite designs. For many, Dow was the single most influential teacher of arts and crafts in this country. The main reason that Dow is so little known today is that he was overshadowed by the success of his students.

Last fall, Dow's gifts of teaching were celebrated with an exhibition, "Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts & Crafts at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University. The show brought together paintings and objects made by a number of artists trained by Dow. They include painters Georgia O'Keeffe (TC alumna) and Max Weber, photographers Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Steichen, and entire pottery studios.

Born and raised in Massachusetts in 1857, Dow took his first art lessons from painter James M. Stone, then later traveled to Paris to study art and the work of English designer William Morris. Bored with the academics of formal instruction, yet scandalized by the modernists such as Paul Gaugin, Dow returned to Boston in 1889 to pursue his own artistic style.

It was in Boston, at the public library, that he became enthralled with the work of Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese woodcut artist. By 1892, Dow was experimenting with his own woodcuts, drawing on the Japanese aesthetic for beauty and composition. But Dow was never content with simply making art, nor did he believe that art should always be on canvas. Driven to share what he knew, Dow opened an art school, Ipswich Summer School, where he taught how to apply his art principles to pottery, textiles, and other mediums.

In 1903, while on a trip to Japan, Dow received a telegram informing him of his appointment to the directorship of the Department of Fine Arts at Teachers College. In this appointment, Dean James Earl Russell, was extending his policy of recruiting for the college specialists who were not only scholars but "products of a wider culture who had a gift of inciting students to scholarly endeavor." His tenure as director would end only upon his sudden death in December of 1922, after delivering a lecture at the College.

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons Dow is remembered today is the legacy passed on to and acknowledged by his best known student, Georgia O'Keeffe. In 1912, O'Keeffe and her sisters attended summer classes at the University of Virginia taught by Alan Bement, an instructor from Teachers College. Under Bement, O'Keeffe learned about Dow's method of seeing: using line and color to create beauty rather than a canned interpretation of nature.

O'Keeffe later commented that the simplicity of Dow's method was deceptive for "it could be used to make every aesthetic decision. It also provided an alphabet, so to speak, that could be arranged and rearranged, resulting in a great deal of individualism."

In 1914, O'Keeffe moved to New York to study with Dow at Teachers College. Dow recognized O'Keeffe's exceptional quality early and, in a job recommendation for her, noted, "She is one of the most talented people in art that we have ever had." Lady with Red Hair (c. 1914-16), an early work of O'Keeffe's, is an interesting example of a linocut and is possibly a portrait of one of O'Keeffe's friends at Teachers College, Dorothy True.

Ms. Patience Young, curator of the Stanford exhibit, says, "It was Dow who introduced us to the idea that our homes could be an expression of our personal selves." She adds, Dow was interested in making works that were pleasing to the eye. Everything he promoted was, in a sense, soothing and satisfying to look at."

Dow was so passionate about his newfound style and approach to art that he also authored Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers, which became the primary text used in arts and crafts design for more than four decades. The success of that book coupled with Dow's reputation as an inspiring teacher led to teaching positions at various top art schools, including Teachers College.

What set Dow apart from many other teachers was his radical departure from realism. Rather than copy reality, Dow taught his students to capture the essence of reality. He taught his students to look at details for inspiration, then simplify it and abstract it down. What historians have recently realized is that Dow's instructions paved the way for abstract art.

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