Ernest Lawson in Colorado

by Stan Cuba

Ernest Lawson,<i>Mountain Grazing</i>,Private Collection

Although somewhat overshadowed today, Canadian native Ernest Lawson is remembered for his association with The Eight in New York in the early twentieth century. He participated in the group’s inaugural exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in 1908. That same year, he was elected an Associate Member of the National Academy and awarded its first Hallgarten Prize. 

A charter member of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, he served on its Committee on Foreign Exhibits, which helped organize the landmark New York Armory Show in 1913 in which he was represented with three landscapes. His award-winning work was also included in other important exhibitions, such as the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Corcoran Gallery Biennials, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, National Academy of Design, Pittsburgh International Exposition and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Throughout all this, he remained a quiet man who did not aggressively promote himself or his art. Additionally, financial troubles and bouts of alcoholism after World War I caused him to lose his family and some patrons. 

A second-generation American impressionist, he first trained at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1888, following that with studies at the Art Students League in New York and summer classes in Cos Cob, Connecticut, with John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir. There, he first painted en plein air and benefitted from Weir’s counsel: “You are trying to get the whole world on one canvas. Simplify everything and stick to your first impressions.”1

Ernest Lawson, <i>Royal Gorge, Colorado</i>, 1928<br/>Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Sterling Morton for the Preston Morton CollectionIn 1893, Lawson made the obligatory trip to France to polish his artistic skills. After briefly studying with Jean Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant at the Académie Julian, he resumed plein-air painting in the countryside. He was influenced by French impressionist Alfred Sisley, whom he met at Moret-sur-Loing near the Fontainbleau Forest. However, Lawson sought to develop and retain his own perspective, saying, “French influence kills if taken in too large a dose—witness most of our best artists who have become to all intents and purposes Frenchmen in work and thought.”2 In 1894, when he exhibited two paintings at the Salon des Artistes Français in Paris, William Merritt Chase dubbed him “America’s greatest landscape painter.”

Lawson’s initial (though indirect) contact with Colorado resulted from his inclusion in the annual exhibitions of the Denver Artists’ Club in 1910 and 1914, in which he showed, respectively, an untitled landscape and Snow and Melting Ice (date unknown). They also featured paintings by fellow members of The Eight, Robert Henri and Arthur B. Davies, as well as other Eastern artists, such as John F. Carlson, Birge Harrison, H. Bolton Jones, Jonas Lie, Jerome Myers, Leonard Ochtman, Edward H. Potthast, Chauncey F. Ryder and J. Alden Weir. 

Lawson’s direct contact with Colorado occurred in the last decades of his career, during which he experienced financial and health issues. While associated with the Kansas City Art Institute in the mid-1920s, he accepted an offer in 1927 to teach for several summers at the Broadmoor Art Academy in Colorado Springs. Founded in 1919, the Academy (the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center from 1936) functioned for more than a generation as an important cultural center in the Rocky Mountain West. The Academy owed its beginnings to the patronage of a wealthy couple: Julie Penrose, a prominent philanthropist and patron of the arts in Colorado, and her husband, Spencer Penrose, who built the world famous Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. The school took its name from the area of the city in which the Penroses lived.3

Lawson may well have been encouraged to come to Colorado Springs by two New York artist-colleagues: Robert Reid, a fellow National Academician and member of The Ten American Painters (“The Ten”) who taught figure painting at the Broadmoor Academy from 1920 to 1927, and Randall Davey, who taught there from 1925 to 1930 and who preceded Lawson as a teacher at the Kansas City Art Institute. Although not pleased with his rather low salary, in the 1920s, Lawson became part of the Broadmoor Art Academy’s distinguished faculty, which included John F. Carlson, Birger Sandzén and William Potter, among others.

Like many other artists and students at the Broadmoor Art Academy—and later the Fine Arts Center under Boardman Robinson—Lawson gained an appreciation of the vast expanse west of the Mississippi River. That perspective was summarized by George Biddle, who taught in Colorado Springs a decade after Lawson: “One forgets that…the eastern seaboard is not America. To feel the pull of the current, we Easterners must cross the Mississippi, the [Texas] Panhandle, and the Rockies. To get a bird’s-eye view one must stand above the timberline.”4

Ernest Lawson, <i>Colorado Landscape, Winter</i>, 1927<br/>Private Collection.

Although Lawson’s Colorado connection occupies a relatively small part of his career and included classroom duties, he managed to produce several dozen paintings and some monotypes. They are important as new subject matter in the context of his whole creative output. He painted his Colorado canvases in his “crushed jewel” technique, a term coined previously by New York critic James Huneker to describe his style. Using both a palette knife and a brush, Lawson worked in a spontaneous manner, building up the pigment in his paintings so that their surfaces shimmer with color and light. Describing his attachment to color, he said, “Color is my specialty in art….It affects me like music affects some persons—emotionally."5

When not teaching at the Academy, Lawson adapted his practice of plein-air painting in the East to the rugged, mountainous environment—whose atmospheric conditions proved quite different from the ones he previously knew in Europe and in his upper-Manhattan neighborhood. As he later told fellow artist Guy Pène du Bois, “I couldn’t feel the place, that stuff, it was too bleak…forbidding.”6 

Nevertheless, Colorado allowed Lawson explore a new locale and to recapture solidity in his work, ascribed to his exposure to Cézanne’s painting in Paris several decades earlier. Because his Colorado canvases reflect the contours of the land and the stronger light encountered more than a mile above sea level, they lack the “nostalgic sweetness of the American Impressionists.”7 

Like John F. Carlson, Robert Reid and Birger Sandzén before him, Lawson found in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs a wonderland of red sandstone rock formations, providing him and his students abundant material for onsite painting. A popular subject was Sentinel Rock, whose dramatic upward thrust he depicted through a twisted juniper tree in the park.8 From a vantage point high above Colorado Springs, he also captured the expanse of the plains stretching endlessly eastward from the city, as in Rocks and Plains (c. 1928) and in Gateway to the Plains (undated, c. 1927).9

Lawson, who liked painting winter scenes along the Hudson and Harlem Rivers because snow was for him an emotional state in nature, also produced at least one known image of a Colorado winter landscape—Pikes Peak. He compared nature’s emotions to “those major emotions of man: anticipation, realization and retrospection.10   

Ernest Lawson, Red Hills, Colorado, c. 1929.  Private Collection.Other mountainous locales gaining Lawson’s attention were the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado, the Sangre de Cristos straddling the border into northern New Mexico and the Royal Gorge – a deep canyon of the Arkansas River that is a popular tourist attraction near Cañon City, Colorado.11 Standing in the bottom of the canyon, he moulded and animated with his palette the sheer granite walls of the canyon channeling the flow of the river. Similarly, the heavy impasto and strong colors in Red Hills, Colorado (c. 1929) convey the inner strength of the mountains and the river’s strong current carrying water to the state’s Western Slope. These and other images he created in Colorado anticipate his statement quoted a decade later in the Miami Herald that “nature merely suggests something to us to which we add our own ideas. Impressions from nature are merely jumping off points for artistic creation.”12  

A number of his Colorado landscapes were included in a joint exhibition held with Randall Davey in the main gallery of the Denver Art Museum-Chappell House at the conclusion of Lawson’s first summer at the Broadmoor Academy. In a lengthy article in the Denver press, a reviewer noted:

To a Denver art lover, Mr. Lawson’s landscapes….are especially interesting as they represent an interpretation of the Rocky Mountains by one who has had his first experience with them this year. The beautiful undulating shadows, so dense in the clear air and bright light of Colorado, are difficult to the newcomer, especially as they seem to increase in density as the distance increases.

We remember a comment of Mr. Lawson’s in a conversation recently when he said: “The more I try to paint the shadows out here the more it puzzles me. The effect changes so quickly that it seems impossible to record it before another equally beautiful is formed. Sometimes when I paint a shadow it looks to me as though a piece of carpet had been tacked over the spot.”

That Lawson has mastered this difficulty is realized as soon as one looks at the paintings in Chappell House. The velvety darkness, the sense of movement across the hilltops are there; so also is that transparency that leaves objects in shadow revealed. The artist’s eye has again proven more sensitive than the highly specialized mechanical eye of the camera.13

During the following summers he spent at the Broadmoor Art Academy, he painted a number of canvases in Cripple Creek, a prosperous nineteenth-century mining town in the mountains west of Colorado Springs that, by the late 1920s, had become a vestige of its former self. These images anticipate the great interest taken in Colorado mines and ghost towns by the Academy’s teachers and students in the 1930s.

Ernest Lawson, <i>Cripple Creek, Colorado</i>, c. 1927<br/>de Young Museum, San Francisco, California.

Autumn Colorado (now titled Cripple Creek, Colorado) (c. 1927) is a transitional piece that bridges his previous landscape work in the vicinity of New York and displays his coming to grips with his new western environment. Like almost all of his Colorado paintings, Autumn Colorado does not include any people; human presence is conveyed by inhabited or abandoned buildings. 

Two subsequent, notable Cripple Creek images are Abandoned Mine, Cripple (1928-29) that may have been a study for his larger painting, Gold Mining, Cripple Creek (1929). In 1930, the latter canvas earned him the Saltus Gold Medal from the National Academy. It represented an important professional recognition, buoying him up at the beginning of what would be his most difficult decade, with the onset of the Great Depression and greatly reduced income coupled with his increasing health problems. Writes William Kloss:

The canvas is filled with a great, sweeping mountainside, save for the small arch of sky at the top [a characteristic of most of Lawson’s Colorado paintings]…It is the kind of massiveness that would have appealed to a more somber and weighty painter—Marsden Hartley, for example…But in Lawson’s hands it has become a landslide of color, a vibrant and tactile field of paint….Energetic strokes of every description activate the surface…The thrust and counter-thrust of his brush, splashy though it is does a brick-layer’s work. 

Lawson’s essential modernism is perhaps more apparent to us today than it was to his contemporaries. Never adopting the distortions and abstractions that developed after the death of Cézanne, he instead probed the complexities of surface texture and the use of color to create space and volume.14

In 1932, F. Newlin Price, owner of the Ferargil Gallery in New York, hosted an exhibition of Lawson’s canvases of New York and Colorado. In the Herald Tribune, art critic Royal Cortissoz summed up the artist’s respective approaches to his subject matter, giving his Colorado work equal billing—not always the case during his lifetime and afterward. Cortissoz wrote:

This painter, who turned French Impressionism into his own individual style, paints poetic subjects, and his effect is delicately atmospheric and mistily luminous. Then he turns to more concrete things [a reference to his Colorado work] in which he seems to sacrifice the poetic quality.

However, the observer comes to realize that in leaving his paler, more opalescent harmonics for others having up a sharper tang, Mr. Lawson is not ill-advised. On the contrary, with the adoption of a more complex color scheme, a more agate-like and denser quality, he achieves greater brilliance. His whole sense of things seems to grow deeper and stronger. His handling of rocky forms is more plastic and more impressive….All of Mr. Lawson’s moods are productive of arresting canvases, largely because he paints from so markedly personal a point of view.15 

Ernest Lawson, <i>Abandoned Mine Cripple Creek</i>, c. 1928-29<br/>American Museum of Western Art - The Anschutz Collection, Denver, Colorado. 

 

Notes:

1. “Ernest Lawson,” www.gratzgallery.com.

2. Constance H. Schwartz, The Shock of Modernism in America: The Eight and Artists of the Armory Show (Roslyn Harbor, New York: Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, 1984), 25.

3. The origins of the Broadmoor Art Academy are discussed in Stanley L. Cuba and Elizabeth Cunningham, Pikes Peak Vision: The Broadmoor Art Academy, 1919-1945 (Colorado Springs: Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 1989).

4. George Biddle, An American Artist’s Story (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1939), 301.

5. Valerie Ann Leeds, “Ernest Lawson in a New Light,” Ernest Lawson (New York: Gerald Peters Gallery, 2000), 13.

6. Guy Pène du Bois, Ernest Lawson (New York: Whitney Museum of Art, American Artists Series, 1932), 14.

7. Dennis R. Anderson, “Ernest Lawson’s Vision,” Ernest Lawson Retrospective (New York: ACA Galleries, 1976), 14.   

8. Dawn, Sentinel Rock (present location unknown) is reproduced in F. Newlin Price, Ernest Lawson: Canadian-American (New York: Ferargil, Inc., 1930), 33. 

9. Gateway to the Plains (present location unknown) is reproduced in Price, 27.

10. Anderson, “Ernest Lawson’s Vision,” 14.

11. One known Lawson painting of New Mexico—Path of Sunlight, New Mexico (undated, c. 1928-29)—is in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

12. Miami Herald, January 8, 1937, quoted in Anderson, 14.

13. Undated clipping either from the Rocky Mountain News or the Denver Post, Archives of American Art, microfilm reel 1788, frame 1050.

14. William Kloss, Treasures from the National Museum of American Art (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), 118.

15. “Ernest Lawson Wins High Praise of Critics,” Art Digest, April 1, 1932, 10.