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2008 Catalog > 31. Dows, Procession

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An Extraordinary Dreamscape by Muralist and Printmaker Olin Dows

31. Olin Dows. “Procession,” 1962. Mixed media on artist’s board. Image: 15¾ x 35 1/2". Board size: 22 x 42". Frame: 23 x 43". Signed at l. l.: Olin Dows / 1962. Fine.

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Olin Dows’ enigmatic painting of robed figures parading in linear fashion across a desert dreamscape represents a distinct departure from the style and subject matter with which he is most commonly associated. Here employing an unusual mix of media (tempera, oil, and gold on a partially textured ground) to dramatic effect, Dows achieves an otherworldly glow from his metallic, jewel-like colors enhanced by the application of real gold leaf. The setting for the procession hints of Mexico, Tunisia, or Morocco, but ultimately it appears to be a landscape of the imagination, in which the artist incorporates oddly juxtaposed elements. The heavily robed water and basket carriers are strangely anonymous, their movements dance like, as Dows transforms the arduous task of bringing water from distant sources into an elegant promenade, lead mysteriously by a small white dog. The procession traverses a stark countryside of jagged outcroppings and massive gold sand dunes through which flows a jade-colored stream, its glasslike surface reflecting a rhythmic black-white pattern from the robes of the figures.

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There is little in Dows’ personal and artistic background to provide much in the way of a clue to the genesis of this remarkable and perhaps very personal painting. Dows was born in 1904 in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, and grew up at Fox Hollow, a farm near Rhinebeck in the Hudson River Valley. The Dowses were neighbors of the Roosevelt and Delano families, and Olin as a boy knew Franklin, the future president. In the early 1920s, Dows studied painting at the Arts Students League in New York City and the Yale School of Fine Art, counting among his teachers the muralist Eugene Savage and the Vassar professor C. K. Chatterton, who had been a student of Robert Henri. Influence from the styles of both Savage and Chatterton is evident in Dows’ own mural painting, prints, and illustrations.

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Dows’ career received a boost when President Roosevelt included in 1934 a federally sponsored mural program as part of the New Deal package and authorized the creation of the Section of Painting and Sculpture within the Treasury Relief Art Project. The program was administered by Edward Bruce with assistance from Dows, Edward Rowan, and Forbes Watson. Roosevelt also personally selected Dows to paint murals in the post offices at Hyde Park and Rhinebeck. Noted Eleanor Roosevelt in her autobiography My Day, “My husband had a great affection for Olin Dows, as well as for Olin Dows’ mother. She was one of the people who loved ‘the river’ as much as he did himself, and whose associations went far back into the lives of their forebears. He always took an interest in Olin Dows’ painting and was delighted that Olin’s murals decorate both the Hyde Park post office [sic] and the Rhinebeck post office. He particularly liked the fact that Olin had caught likenesses and that he could recognize people in these murals.”

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Dows studied the art of mural painting in Mexico, to which he had traveled in 1933. Described by Time magazine in the 1930s as “a bristle-haired young socialite painter,” he was undoubtedly drawn, along with a contingency of American artists and intellectuals, to the exciting and politically charged work of the Mexican muralists Rivera, Orozco, and Siquieros. During this period, Dows produced a series of woodcut prints depicting scenes of daily life among Mexican peasants—themes that provide a potential source for the scene in the painting offered here.

Many aspects of Dows’ career coalesce in Procession—his early studies with Savage, his knowledge of Mexican mural art, and his application of modernist tenets of abstraction and reduction. Nonetheless, the painting remains enigmatic and highly personal in its dreamlike vision, perhaps even reflecting influence from the surrealist movement in America in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Dows died in Rhinebeck in 1981.

An exceptionally rare and unusual painting in the history of 20th-century American art.

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