Ernest Lawson (American 1873-1939)
In the early decades of the twentieth century, Ernest Lawson painted urban and rural landscapes using the brilliant color and light of impressionism, a relatively conservative style; throughout his career, however, he also allied himself with more radical artistic movements. The son of a doctor, Lawson was born in Nova Scotia and had a peripatetic youth. He began his art studies in Kansas City, Missouri, and Mexico City. In 1891, he began to work under painter John Twachtman at New Yorks Art Students League; the next year, he followed his mentor to the artists colony at Cos Cob, Connecticut, a center for the development of impressionism in America.
In 1893 Lawson traveled to Paris for further study and came under the influence of French impressionism when he met the French landscape painter Alfred Sisley (1839–1899). By 1898 he had settled in the Washington Heights section of New York City, where the nearby Hudson, Harlem, and East rivers became important subjects for his early paintings. Lawson developed a lyrical personal style characterized by thickly applied small strokes of heightened color, likened by critics to the effect of crushed jewels. An outgrowth of impressionism, particularly as influenced by Twachtman, Lawsons approach also was conditioned by the tactile surfaces and emotional intensity of the movement known as post-impressionism. Notwithstanding this decorative style and his dedication to landscape, early in his career Lawson was drawn by his interest in urban subjects and his rejection for membership by the prestigious National Academy of Design to join the social realist painters who began exhibiting together as The Eight in 1908. Within a few years, Lawson helped organize and contributed paintings to yet another important exhibition of avant-garde art, the so-called Armory Show of 1913, a groundbreaking event that first brought radical European modernism before the American public.
Lawsons participation in such exhibitions did not deter conservative critics, with whom his works found favor in the 1910s and 1920s for their strong compositions, richly worked surfaces, sparkling color, and pastoral subjects. He was finally elected a full member of the National Academy in 1917. Lawson maintained connections to the art world in his native Canada and traveled widely to paint; in 1916, he visited Spain on the proceeds of an award from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., one of many important marks of recognition that came his way despite his lack of commercial success. Alcoholism and marital problems, combined with the failure of the art market during the Great Depression, impoverished Lawson in his final years, during which he taught art to support himself and completed a post office mural under the sponsorship of the Federal Art Program. In 1936, suffering from arthritis, Lawson took up residence with a former student and her husband in Coral Gables, Florida, where three years later he died suddenly at the age of sixty-six.