Manierre Dawson Biography
America’s first abstract artist was a fruit farmer in Mason County!
Art historians assert that Manierre Dawson (1887-1969) was America’s originator of abstract art; in fact, recent scholarship has suggested he was one of the first artists in the world to paint in completely non-representation form.
In 1910, when most artists were painting still lifes, human figures, and copies of nature, Dawson was painting circles, arches, numbers, and straight lines, representations no longer from the natural world but inventions from the mind. His abstract paintings of geometric patterns and numbers in vibrant colors were revolutionary.
A native of Chicago, Dawson entered the Armour Institute of Technology (today the Illinois Institute of Technology) after graduating from high school. His engineering studies in college introduced him to abstract principles that influenced his art, leading to the development of a completely modern spirit in his work. In 1910, Dawson produced a series of paintings that used architectural themes depicting non-representational abstractions, the first in America.
After working a year for a prominent Chicago architectural firm, Dawson took a leave of absence to go on a European tour to study art and architecture. In Europe, he met famed American painter, John Singer Sargent in Siena and American writer and art patron, Gertrude Stein in her Paris salon. Stein purchased the first painting Dawson ever sold!
In 1913, Chicago hosted the historic Armory Show, and Dawson was asked to submit his work. His Wharf under Mountain was the only painting by a Chicago artist in the entire show, and the only completely non-objective abstraction in the American room.
Throughout his youth, Dawson spent his summers in the Ludington area. In 1914, he purchased a fruit farm next to his family’s summer vacation home, married, and raised three children. In the early years on the farm, the artist was frustrated by the amount of time farm work stole from his art; however, he painted enthusiastically in any spare moments he could find and continued to produce remarkable, progressive works. Dawson’s long hours in the tree tops trimming branches inspired many of his sculptures.
Although Dawson’s bold, radical abstracts never resulted in acclaim during his lifetime, he lived long enough to see the high regard his work was beginning to generate. Today his paintings and sculptures grace the walls of major museums across the country, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Smithsonian Institute of Art, Washington D.C.
West Shore Community College
Author of Manierre Dawson: Inventions of the Mind