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Arthur Wesley Dow papers, circa 1826-1978, bulk 1879-1922

Biographical Note

Arthur Wesley Dow, landscape painter, printmaker, photographer, and influential art educator, was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts on April 6, 1857, the eldest son of Mary Patch and David Dow. As a young man, he showed interest in the colonial history of Ipswich and together with Reverend Augustine Caldwell, he produced the serial Antiquarian Papers from 1875 to 1880, which featured Dow's drawings of local colonial architecture. It was Caldwell who advised him to pursue formal art instruction and in 1880 Dow began studying in the Boston studio of James M. Stone.
Like many aspiring American artists of his generation, Dow traveled to Paris for further art instruction. Between 1884 and 1889, the artist alternated between spending time in Paris, where he had enrolled in the Académie Julian, and in Brittany where he painted landscapes en plein air. During this period he produced landscape paintings that were accepted into the Paris Salon and exhibited to moderate success back in the United States.
Shortly after his return to Ipswich, Dow took a studio in Boston, where he hoped to attract students and began an extremely fertile and successful period as an art educator. He began studying Japanese art, particularly the compositional elements employed in Japanese prints, which he synthesized with Western art techniques and utilized in teaching composition and design. In addition to seeing students in his Boston studio, he began the Ipswich Summer School of Art, which continued into 1907. Pratt Institute hired Dow as an art instructor in 1895 and he remained there until 1904, when he was appointed the Director of Fine Arts of the Columbia University Teacher's College, a position he retained until his death in 1922. Between 1897 and 1903, he also taught at the Art Students League.
In 1899 his seminal book, Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers, was published. Composition illustrated Dow's teaching method, which focused on the compositional elements of line, notan (a Japanese word for the balance of light and dark in a composition) and color. The book underwent several printings and art schools across the United States adopted the Dow method. Max Weber, Georgia O'Keeffe and the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn were among the artists who personally benefited from Dow's instruction. Through his teaching, publications, and public speeches, Arthur Wesley Dow played an important role in shaping modern American art.