Maynard Dixon was a major figure in the art of the American West. Unlike earlier generations of painters who found inspiration in the mountains that compose the crest of eastern California, Dixon often painted desert expanses in Nevada and Arizona. He frequented old mining camps, the construction site of Hoover Dam
, and, for a time, Carson City. While his style of painting evolved over many years, his most identifiable approach included dramatic expanses of sky and terrain achieved by flat, decidedly fluid brushwork.
Below is reprinted with permission from the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.
Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
Volume 33, Summer 1990, Number 2
MAYNARD DIXON (1875-1946)
Maynard Dixon, who was perhaps California's most notable contribution to western art and illustration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, owed much of his artistic heritage to the surrounding western states. During his lifetime, he traveled extensively throughout the West and, in most instances, his explorations that were not specifically into Nevada involved some type of crossing. Ultimately, the time he spent in Nevada during the 1920s and 1930s served as an important spiritual period in his life, and the land became a source of artistic regeneration.
Born in Fresno in 1875, Dixon spent his boyhood on the great interior plain of California. He began sketching at the age of ten, but frail health restricted this childhood amusement to infrequent sketching trips into the high Sierra or to the wilderness areas of the western slope. In 1891, for health reasons, he moved to Coronado in San Diego. There he started to make illustrations of the Old West, and developed sufficient confidence in his work that he sent his sketchbook to his artistic idol, illustrator Frederic Remington, who responded with such encouragement that Dixon began a career as an illustrator.
The next year he moved to San Francisco, where he continued to develop his drawing and his writing. Gradually achieving recognition, he started writing articles and providing illustrations on western life, including illustrations for Jack London's Alaskan stories in Overland Monthly. He made numerous sketching trips in and around California's Central Valley, the Mother Lode country, and Big Sur, and also started writing poetry as a verbal counterpart of his visual imagery.
In 1900, Dixon made his first visit to the Southwest, traveling extensively throughout Arizona. That trip firmly established the artistic direction in which he would develop throughout the rest of his life, one that concentrated on the Native American and the western landscape. Later that year he returned to San Francisco, to work as a western illustrator for the San Francisco Examiner.
The period 1901-05 was spent traveling, illustrating, and writing. Dixon made a lengthy trip to Northern California, southeast Oregon, and Idaho with fellow California artist and illustrator Ed Borein, and later went to Guadalajara with California landscape artist Xavier Martinez.
In 1906, the earthquake destroyed Dixon's San Francisco studio, and he moved to New York with his wife, Lillian West Tobey. During the five years they lived there, he worked as an illustrator of western novels. Artists Charles M. Russell and Will James
were frequent visitors to his studio, and they spent their time together discussing western art and literature. Dixon, however, was not happy in New York, and in 1912 he and his wife returned to San Francisco.
The year 1912 was a turning point in Dixon's life. In that year Anita Baldwin McClaughy, daughter of Nevada silver millionaire E. J. "Lucky" Baldwin, commissioned Dixon to paint a series of murals in her Sierra Madre home near Pasadena. It was Anita Baldwin who gave Dixon the opportunity to prove himself in major mural work. The murals—Victory Song, Envoys of Peace, The Post, and Ghost Eagle—depicted American Indian subjects and won critical acclaim from the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and such magazines as International Studio. Dixon emphasized the idea that the murals were intended to suggest rather than depict the life of the Plains Indians.1 Of that notion, he wrote:
There is, after all, an American rhythm, and we are undoubtedly becoming more aware of it. And I believe that Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, Kit Carson, Abe Lincoln, P. T. Barnum and Henry Ford are manifestations of it no less than Walt Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters, Winslow Homer, Ceo. Bellows and Rockwell Kent are expressions of it, that the transcontinental migration of 1841-68 was part of it in the same sense that our railway development is part of it; and that the suggestion of decorative art and a touch of mysticism that we have absorbed from the Amerindians is also a part.
I believe, further, that one of the most important ways in which system may be expressed for the people is through the decoration of public buildings, that through interpreting subjects of American history and American conditions in our own temper we may develop an American expression.2
The years 1915-19 were trying times for Dixon. His marriage was strained, and he was becoming disconsolate about the myths and the disappearance of the Old West. He was, however, commissioned to do a group of paintings featuring Glacier National Park and the Blackfoot Indians in Montana. In this connection he made frequent visits to his friend Charles Russell, and this series of paintings became his finest works to date.
In 1920, his first marriage failed, and Dixon married Dorothea Lange, then a portrait photographer. That marriage lasted fifteen years and produced two sons.
Throughout the 1920s, Dixon made lengthy trips to Nevada and Arizona. He would travel for months across the northern part of Nevada, through sheep country, over wild-horse ranges, and into the Black Rock Desert. It was not simply a matter of Dixon going to the desert for artistic stimulation; he was compelled to go for personal and philosophic reasons. "You can't argue with the mountains," he would say, "the West is spiritually important to Americans." 3
By 1927 Dixon was a well-established artist, producing many easel paintings and murals. But he grew restless, longing again for a more primitive area that would allow freedom for a fresh look at things. In the late months of 1927 he wandered and sketched the ranges and deserts of Nevada, which were punctuated with antelope and wild horses. He visited old mining camps, among them Tonopah
and Beatty, and then descended into Death Valley. By the end of his four months of freedom, he had completed fifty-six paintings, and almost all of them were sold.4
And after returning to San Francisco, he prepared an exhibition for the Riverside Hotel in Reno
The 1930s, marked by the Depression, saw Dixon turn briefly in a new direction, toward social themes; he produced powerful paintings depicting hobos, migrant farm workers, and drifters—somber works in resonance with the Ash Can School or The Eight then developing in New York. This marked the first and perhaps only departure from a traditional western viewpoint to a broader American outlook reflective of the times. His style also changed subtly, as he began experimenting with Cubist elements, influenced by the paintings of Picasso and Braque. He applied Cubist realism by creating geometric shadow patterns in the backgrounds of his compositions, an approach he used in varying degrees for the rest of his life.
In 1935, Dixon became aware that his marriage to Dorothea Lange would not last, and, although it was difficult for him to give up his family, he was divorced in Carson City that October.
Dixon spent several months in Nevada during the fall of 1935, wandering through the deserts and visiting places such as Carson City; there he painted Empty House,
a deserted hovel fronted by Lombardy poplars of autumn, made more bleak by the surrounding empty desert. He was still somewhat saddened about his recent divorce. At this time he also visited Las Vegas and various deserted mining towns, among them, Rhyolite and again Beatty near Death Valley.6
These travels resulted in numerous other works, including Four in October, Lonesome Hills of Nevada, Cabin among Cottonwoods, Kingdom of Desert,
and Shorelines of Lahontan,
the latter a somewhat geometric concept of a mountain emerging sharply from the flat desert floor.7
Returning to San Francisco in 1937, Dixon married artist Edith Hamlin. He continued to paint and write, but by 1939 his emphysema became so severe that they had to move permanently to Tucson, spending summers in southern Utah. Edith Hamlin wrote of Dixon's work:
Dixon's fluency with drawing in every medium, pencil, pen and ink, crayon and charcoal, formed a secure basis for all of his later creations. His work is readily recognizable for its expressive and rhythmic line and the masterful drawing quality. After 1913, with his return from New York to the West, he was able to concentrate on both easel painting and murals, which allowed his facile illustrative draftsmanship to develop in more expressive and creative directions. From spontaneous, rather impressionistic oil paintings of the 1900s to the early 1920s, he evolved a flatter surface treatment with a bolder composition that was more simplified and geometric. By the 1930s, he included what he called "space division" in order to bring into line the most dominant diagonals, horizontals or verticals of his work. In both field drawings as well as studio compositions and landscapes, Dixon was very selective as to the simplification of the subject material—rearranging, discarding, and accentuating the theme to suit his own aesthetic purposes. His style developed as a tool for his messages, not as an end in itself. 8
The last six years of Dixon's life brought wide public recognition, and his paintings produced from 1920 were highly acclaimed as masterworks belonging to the modern period of western art.
Expressing one of his strongest convictions as an artist, Dixon said: "If doubtful of your work, return to nature and renew your vision." It was advice that he followed diligently all his life. When not working on a commission in his San Francisco studio, or later at his Tucson studio, he devoted his time to painting-and-sketching trips, which eventually encompassed every state in the West. From these extensive field trips and the insights they produced, he evolved a mastery of his material and a highly distinctive style—the architectural structuring of bold masses combined with dynamic composition and vibrant coloring.9
Dixon died in Tucson on November 14, 1946. His paintings of Nevada remain some of his most alluring and haunting images. Major Nevada works are in the permanent collections of Brigham Young University, the Oakland Museum, Amon Carter Museum of Western Art (Fort Worth), San Diego Fine Art Museum, Norton Simon Art Museum (Pasadena), De Young Museum (San Francisco), Brooklyn Museum, and the Nevada Museum of Art (Reno).
1. Donald J. Hagerty, Visions and Images: Maynard Dixon and the American West (San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences, 1981), 21.
2. Ibid., 21.
3. Ibid., 21.
4. Grant Wallace, Maynard Dixon: Painter and Poet of the Far West (San Francisco: California Art Research Project, WPA Project 2874), 62.
5. "Version A," unpublished manuscript in possession of Edith Hamlin, 22.
6. "Version A," 34.
7. Wesley M. Burnside, Maynard Dixon, Artist of the West (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1974), 129.
8. Donald J. Hagerty, editor and interviewer, "Edith Hamlin: A California Artist" (Davis: University of California, 1981.)
9. Dorothy Harmsen, Harmsen's Western America
(Flagstaff: Northland Press, 1971).