Project Description

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922)
House in a Landscape, 1890
Oil on canvas
12 x 20 inches
Signed and dated lower left: Arthur W. Dow 11.90


Walter and Roslyn Hill
by descent to private collection


In August of 1889, Arthur Wesley Dow returned to his hometown of Ipswich, Massachusetts after a lengthy sojourn abroad. The artist had spent most of the previous five years in France, where he attended classes under Jules Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger at the Académie Julian. However, Dow’s sojourn at Julian’s––where painters went to study the human figure–– had little effect on his development as an artist. To be sure, seeking a more informal, non-academic ambience in which to work, Dow spent much of his time in Concarneau and Pont-Aven in the Breton countryside, popular gathering places for the plein air crowd––progressive-minded landscape painters who, carrying on a tradition started earlier by the French Barbizon School, focused their attention on depicting subtle nuances of light and atmosphere in relation to the rural environment seen at dusk or bathed in the muted light from overcast skies. Influenced by the example of French Naturalists such as Jules Bastien-Lepage and by American expatriate painters such as T. Alexander Harrison and Charles Augustus “Shorty” Lazar, Dow decided to make landscape painting his forte. So inspired, he went on to create lyrical views of nature, such as A Field, Kerlaouen (1887; The Dicke Collection) and Au Soir (1888; Ipswich School Committee, Massachusetts), which established his reputation in the art world.


In the wake of his return to Ipswich, Dow involved himself in community life, helping found the Ipswich Historical Society in 1890. Eager to emulate his Brittany experience, he acquired space in an empty store, filled it with his Breton work, and began to take students. He continued to paint landscapes as well, drawing inspiration from Ipswich and its environs, a locale whose pastoral ambiance, remote marshlands, poplars and oaks, and pearly luminosity was similar to that he had encountered in coastal Brittany.


As noted by Dow’s biographer, Arthur Warren Johnson, “The years in France had one salutary effect and it was that [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Dow’s] native town was examined with eyes trained to see the utmost possibility of any landscape.”[1] Certainly, echoes of his Breton experience can be found in oils such as House in a Landscape, which features a picturesque dwelling situated on a broad pasture, empty except for a few trees that line the horizon. As in his Brittany canvases, Dow avoids the bright light of midday and instead depicts his bucolic subject bathed in the softer and much more inviting light emanating from a sunset sky. The foreground is bisected by a pathway leading up to the farmhouse, where we can discern a small figure––presumably added to the composition to provide a sense of scale. In keeping with Dow’s work from this period, the mood is quiet and hushed; the flatness and harmony of the design–-created by the high horizon and by the division of the view into simplified areas of land and sky––is decidedly modern and reminds us that even before he began studying the aesthetic precepts of Japanese ukiyo-e prints in 1891, Dow was already moving towards a planar, non-Western approach to composition.


In keeping with his belief that “the artist does not teach us to see facts,” Dow portrays the scene with animated brushwork, eliminating detail and specificity in order to capture the underlying poetry of his subject.[2] Drawing on his Breton background, especially his contact with the aforementioned Lazar, he devotes much of his palette to browns, greys and dark greens that are very much in keeping with the setting and time of day. Dow’s muted hues, as well as his rustic subject and painterly technique, links the work to Tonalism, an evocative mode of painting that flourished in American art circles from about 1885 to 1915.[3] To be sure, the dark colors of the landscape and architecture lend an aura of mystery to the image; at the same time, they establish a contrast with the radiant pinks, greens and oranges appearing in the sunset sky––an indication of Dow’s growing interest in expanding his chromatic range beyond the muted hues of the Barbizon School.


Notable for its sense of intimacy and its serene, introspective mood, House in a Landscape stands as a transitional work in Dow’s oeuvre, revealing the way in which he applied his lingering Barbizon sensibility to the portrayal of New England scenery while experimenting with a broader range of colors and an unconventional treatment of space. In so doing, he provides us with a very romantic painting that effectively captures the spirit of his native Ipswich and reveals his highly subjective response to his immediate surroundings.

[1] Arthur Warren Johnson, Arthur Wesley Dow, Historian, Artist, Teacher (Ipswich, Mass.: Ipswich historical Society, 1934), 43.

[2] Arthur Wesley Dow, “Talks on Appreciation of Art,” Delineator (January 1915): 15.

[3] For a recent study of this phenomenon, see Ralph Sessions, et al., The Poetic Vision: American Tonalism (New York: Spanierman Gallery, 2005).[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]