Edwin Dickinson: An Anniversary
For Edwin Dickinson, life and art were inextricably joined. As one of his students once commented, “Dickinson didn’t think independently of his life and what happened on the canvas or the drawing paper — they were exactly, identically the same thing” (TFAO). His large hauntingly, enigmatic paintings are a piercing look into the mind of the artist.
Dickinson was highly influenced by realist artist and mentor, Charles Webster Hawthorne. Under Hawthorne’s instruction, Dickinson learned to look for the unexpected and to paint without formulas, to squint to determine value relationships, to establish compositions between “spots” of color (Hawthorne, wiki). It is here in the seemingly strange juxtapositions of monochromatic forms, dark figures, and miscellaneous objects of his paintings that Dickinson’s life emerges in image.
In An Anniversary (1920-21), the dark symbols of Dickinson’s life are an overwhelming and intimate portrayal of the artist. Anniversaries were significant dates for Dickinson, who meticulously recorded the anniversaries of births and deaths of relatives, dear friends, and individuals he greatly admired—including Beethoven, Bach, and Proust, as well as Civil War battles and other major events in history (Driscoll, wiki). It is thought that the painting was directly inspired by Thomas Hardy’s poem “An Anniversary,” in which anniversaries are “the saddest days of the year.” Yet Dickinson’s An Anniversary does not seem to depict a single day of the year. The crowed of figures, who appear to be unaware of each other, and clutter of miscellaneous objects strewn across the bottom of the painting do not contribute to a unified narrative. Instead, the shadowy forms and densely layered composition of the painting seem to evoke the notion of memories.
At the center of An Anniversary, three brightly toned faces—an aged father, musician, and young woman—form a certain compositional and symbolic trinity of Dickinson’s life.
Several major tragedies deeply affected Dickinson and his work. During his youth, Dickinson was a constant witness to his mother’s protracted tuberculosis and eventual death. After her death, the family was shattered, and relatives drifted away from each other as Dickinson’s father was unable to hold together the family. Ten years after his mother’s devastating death, Dickinson found himself living in New York with his brother, Burgess, who was talented yet deeply depressed and alcoholic musician. “Burgess was the chief influence in my entire life,” Dickinson once stated (Carbone). After Burgess committed suicide—it was Dickinson who found the body—Dickinson was awakened to a new aesthetic of intensely dark and profoundly psychological symbols.
At the top of the trinity, a male musician (mostly likely symbolizing Dickinson’s brother) holds, but does not play, a violin. Multiple other unplayed instruments scatter the scene, and sheets of music score lie unnoticed by the figures of the painting. The fact that neither the instruments nor the music score are used seem to suggest Burgess’ unfilled potential as a musician. The somber gathering of people, all dressed in black or dark attire, seem to depict a funeral setting. Yet Burgess’ presence within An Anniversary (perhaps an anniversary of Burgess’ death or funeral) is very much living. Symbolically as a musician dressed in a lively red and clearly a major influence of the painting, Dickinson’s brother is quite present. In a painting of memories, time blends. Past and present come together in the artist’s mind.
The following year of his brother’s suicide, Dickinson’s father remarried to a young woman twenty one years his junior. It is argued that perhaps besides Dickinson’s brother (or more so), Dickinson’s relationship to his stepmother is the greatest influence and subject of An Anniversary. His father’s marriage was a deep source of resentment for Dickinson, whose taboo Oedipal conflict with his father caused him much estrangement from society’s accept norms (TFAO).
The aged father (left within the trinity) waves a weak but admonishing or accusatory finger toward the viewer. In this moment, the viewer is immediately and uncomfortably placed within the disjunct narrative of the painting. Here, the viewer would seem to assume the role of Dickinson himself. It is clear Dickinson does not paint his father favorably nor does his father look back favorably upon the viewer—that is, Dickinson. Yet it is unclear whether the decrepit father truly sees the viewer; his eyes are barely open and given his appearance of extreme age, it is possible presbyopia has altogether claimed his sight. Like his unawareness to his son’s romantic feelings toward his wife, so too is he physically blind.
Indeed, only the young woman is startlingly aware of the viewer. Though the trinity of figures lies at the center of the painting, the young woman’s face (right within trinity) is most central to An Anniversary. With pursed lips, her Mona Lisa-esque expression makes it unclear of her feelings of the viewer. Yet as the viewer looks upon her, she gazes back with equal attentiveness. Amidst the chaos of dark images, the viewer’s gaze natural settles on her enigmatic face. Her face is calm, and as one gazes into her eyes, so too does the viewer become calm. Perhaps An Anniversary the depression Dickinson experienced at his father’s marriage to another woman or perhaps the depression experienced when he realized his love for his father’s new wife? Perhaps the painting depicts his father’s impending death or funeral?
The profound depth of Dickinson’s personally dark life are seen and intensely felt in his work. Because of the viewer’s perspective and painted deliberate relationship with the figures of the painting, the viewer, in a sense, becomes Dickinson himself. The viewer sees and feels as Dickinson does.
Yet as much as these images seem to symbolize Dickinson’s life, they do not explain his life. Perhaps these symbols do not exist at all. Dickinson generally “avoided explanation except to describe procedures, technical problems, and formal concerns. Even when he mentioned the underlying subject or theme of the painting or identified, he acted mystified abut some of its particulars” (Ward, wiki). Yet in this, Dickinson frees the observer to experience the painting in terms of its mood and formal interplay and its suggestion of memories evoked by the title. The viewer need not experience the dark intensity and sadness of the painting merely as Dickinson’s feelings. The viewer feels the intensity and sadness as one’s own.
Holly Huey – St. John’s College student
Photo credit: Edwin Dickinson, (American, 1891-1978), An Anniversary, 1920-21, Oil on canvas
Collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ansley W. Sawyer, 1927. © 1939 Estate of Edwin Dickinson. Photograph by Tom Loonan