About Maynard Dixon (1875-1946)
Why does Maynard Dixon’s fame continue to spread over half a century after his death? Almost everyone recognizes his superb artistic skill and honest vision. Some credit his deep understanding of the West. But maybe more than anything else, it is his uniquely modern style, one that gave the West a new language of expression that makes Maynard Dixon’s work so exciting. A vision purely his own.
Dixon was born in Fresno, California into a family that had settled there after the civil war; aristocratic Virginia Confederates who found a new home in California. His mother, daughter of a Navy officer from San Francisco, loved to read the classics and was very educated herself - and encouraged the young boy in his writing and drawing. He later studied briefly with the great tonalist painter Arthur Mathews at the California School of Design, where he became close friends with Xavier Martinez and others of the famous “Bohemian Club”. To support himself, he accepted numerous illustration jobs. Great illustrators were plentiful around the turn of the century, yet Dixon obtained work from the Overland Monthly and several San Francisco newspapers.
In 1900, Dixon visited Arizona and New Mexico. This was the start of his lifelong passion for roaming the West. The next year he accompanied artist Edward Borein on a horseback trip through several Western states. In California, he illustrated books and magazines with Western themes. Some of his most memorable work from these early years appeared in Clarence Mulford’s books about Hopalong Cassidy. For a time, he lived in New York with his young wife and baby daughter Constance but came back to the west where he said he could create “honest art of the west” - not the romanticized versions he was being paid to create. The marriage ended as well, and he began a new life in San Francisco.
Dixon developed his own unique style during this early period, and Western themes became a trademark for him. In San Francisco, Dixon was considered a colorful character with a good sense of humor. He often dressed like a cowboy and seemed determined to impart a Western style, most often in the form of a black Stetson, boots and a bolo tie.
Influenced in part by the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, Dixon began to search for a new expression, moving away from impressionism and into a simpler, more modern style. Meeting and marrying Dorothea Lange, a portrait photographer from the East also appears to have had a great influence on his art. The two married in 1920, and by 1925, the year their first son Daniel was born, Maynard’s expression had changed dramatically to even more powerful compositions, with the emphasis on design, color and drawing. A true modernist emerged. The power of low horizons and marching cloud formations, simplified and distilled, became his own brand - and at once - were both bold and mysterious.
During the Great Depression, Dixon painted a series of social realism canvases depicting the prevailing politics of maritime strikes, displaced workers, and those affected so deeply by the depression. Simultaneously, Lange captured on film the images of the migrant workers in the Salinas Valley and the city breadlines; images that eventually brought her great fame. In 1933, the Dixons spent the summer in Zion Park with sojourns to the small hamlet of Mt. Carmel, Utah. Dorothea was called back to San Francisco, which was the beginning of the end of the marriage.
Dixon and Lange divorced in 1935. Two years later, he married prominent San Francisco muralist Edith Hamlin. The couple left San Francisco two years later for Southern Utah, the source of some of Dixon’s greatest art. He had returned to the inspiration of the land, where the spirit moved him and gave him the peace he sought.
In 1939, the couple built a summer home in Mount Carmel, Utah, where Dixon found new friends and became reacquainted with the earth. He lived near the cottonwood trees along an old irrigation ditch and took short hikes to a plateau where he loved the quiet. Dixon spent winter months in Tucson, where the couple also had a home and studio.
Dixon continued to create masterpieces – simple, yet powerful compositions in which non-essential elements were distilled or eliminated. In November of 1946, Maynard passed away at his winter home in Tucson. In the spring of 1947, his widow Edith brought his ashes to Mt. Carmel where she buried them on a high bluff above the art studio being built on the property. This had been at his request - and she felt it a fitting tribute where friends could come to pay respects and view the land that he loved.
His legacy will live on through time through his colorful, dramatic canvases that continue to thrill the viewer. An honest vision of his life and experience in a vanishing era of the American west. Is it any wonder Maynard Dixon’s works continue to gain new admirers and inspire us as no other? Wherever the wide-open spaces of the West; its canyons, mesas, cottonwoods, clouds, sagebrush, and people strike a chord in the heart; Maynard Dixon’s art will be honored.
Paul and Susan Bingham
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