Maynard Dixon, the Illustrator
The skill of a master, an engaging, unconventional character and a true love for his subject matter have given Maynard Dixon the well earned distinction of being one of western art’s penultimate creators. A wanderlust-driven soul known for his cowboy attire and often solitary nature, Dixon was a no-nonsense man with a passion for all things western and his goal was to capture the true soul of the desert landscapes and its denizens honestly and without idealization.
This wasn’t an easy feat, given that Dixon’s initial career trajectory lead him down a path as a successful illustrator for magazines, newspapers and books whose sales depended on their artists’ ability to create a romantic vision of “cowboys and indians” and not the western art that was Dixon's true calling. By the late 1890s, Maynard Dixon was one of the country’s best known creators of nostalgic western imagery, with his work appearing in hundreds of publications, including books by authors Jack London, John Muir, O. Henry and Mary Austin. Still, his heart pulled him toward another life - one that didn’t include the sentimental, unrealistic images he was paid to create for publication.
Like many artists whose best work is born of experience and frustration, Dixon’s lucrative but unfulfilling illustration work spurred him to recognize and follow his true passion, his iconic
style emerging later in his career. But even after abandoning illustration around 1912, Maynard Dixon continued depending on commercial art (particularly poster design and murals) for his bread & butter. In 1921 though, the call of the west became too strong, provoking him to shift his focus to fine art and soon after, the classic Maynard Dixon style was born.
Throughout his life, Dixon wandered the deserts of Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California on horseback and sometimes on foot - often alone and always with a sketchbook in hand. He longed to express the true beauty of the desert mesas he’d lovingly studied as they reached toward the cloud riddled sky and the way the light crept across the desert floor in late afternoon, creating deeply creviced shadows in the sage brush like wrinkles on the landscape. But mostly, it was the spirit of the desert and the freedom it allowed its residents that appealed to the artist and the man; it was an essence he would spend his life in pursuit of capturing on his canvas.
When he first began exploring new techniques after abadoning his commercially popular style, Maynard Dixon found he still preferred the sense of realism found in illustration. But he experimented with somewhat looser strokes, focusing on portraying the intensity of color and geometric shapes that made up the landscape of places he’d visited, including the Navajo reservation in Arizona, where he and wife Dorothea Lange visited for 4 months in 1922. It was
with the support of Lange that Dixon found the confidence to leave the commercial art world and its trappings (all of which he despised) behind to find his true artistic voice - the choice that changed the history of western art forever.