Published: March 20, 2012
Some of the most interesting and compelling Twentieth Century American art was produced by American Scene painters, specifically so-called Regionalists, led by Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood. Protesting against the spread of European Modernism, they sought an authentic American style that focused on realistic depictions of the rural Midwest and South of the 1930s.
Fueled by the Great Depression with its attendant economic upheaval and social uncertainty, Regionalists gave voice to an agrarian culture threatened by these overwhelming forces and ignored by city dwellers.
Arguably the fourth most important Regionalist to emerge from this milieu after the triumvirate of Benton, Curry and Wood is Dale W. Nichols (1904‱995). His crisp and colorful depictions, most famously of red barns in snow-laden landscapes under blue skies with farmers at work, were rooted in his own farm upbringing and his fealty to an American agrarian ideal. At the same time, Nichols’s deviations from his disciplined representational style with occasional touches of abstraction suggest that the European avant-garde influenced him more than most of his Regionalist compatriots.
After a long period of neglect, there is a resurgence of interest in Nichols’s work among curators, historians and collectors. A rewarding and revelatory exhibition, “Dale Nichols: Transcending Regionalism,” has been organized by the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City, Neb. (Nichols’ hometown), and its associate curator, Amanda Mobley Guenther. The show has been seen there and at the Georgia Museum of Art and is currently on view at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art through June 17. This tour is bound to elevate appreciation for Nichols’s art. In line with the exhibition’s title, it underscores differences between Nichols’s work and his Regionalist comrades.
Growing up in David City, Nichols worked on the family farm, and showed early artistic talent that was encouraged at home and in school, to which he walked two miles. Nichols later recalled that “Farm life was all I knew for the first 20 years of my life. In painting&⁛agrarian] canvases, I felt again the vastness of endless skies, experienced again the penetrating cold of Nebraska winters, lived again as farmers live&n spirit, I am very much a farmer.”
At 20, he decamped for Chicago, where over the course of 15 years he studied briefly at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago, worked in commercial illustration, wrote a book about his artistic philosophy and became a nationally known artist. In 1925, he married the first of his five wives and began dressing as a dandy, which “helped him sell his work by showcasing his dynamic and cunning personality,” says Guenther.
Around 1933 Nichols began to paint seriously, soon creating his best-known painting, “End of the Hunt,” 1934, which won an Art Institute of Chicago award and was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It shows a hunter bearing a rabbit, approaching a white house and red outbuildings across an undulating snowscape bathed in sun.
The success of “End,” which brought Nichols national attention, encouraged him to repeat the technique, colors, forms and theme in paintings that followed. “His quick and long-lasting success,” says curator Guenther, “may be attributed to his consistent, recognizable style.”
Thus, “January,” 1935, another characteristic early work, depicts a loaded, horse-drawn sled arriving at a sun-splashed red barn and a shadowed silo amid a bright, snowy landscape. The strain of the horses pulling uphill and the sense of wintry isolation is palpable. Its overall cheerful outlook made it an appropriate 1987 UNICEF Christmas card.
Nichols was especially interested in the effects of light, as exemplified by the starkly outlined buildings amid dramatic drifts in “Big City News” of 1935. The wintry setting underscores the challenges facing the intrepid figure heading back to his house from his rural mailbox.
Whether sawing firewood in winter or mowing and pitching hay in summer, Nichols’s farmers and their wives bend to their tasks with muscle and perseverance. Nichols consistently contended that his work was not part of any larger regional art movement, but simply memory paintings of farm life. Although he did not align himself with Benton & Company, with whom he is so often associated, he did represent the Regionalists’ broad goal of realistically depicting America’s agrarian culture. He joined their anti-Modernist chorus, contending that Henri Matisse’s agenda threatened the end of Realism.
By the late 1930s, Nichols was exhibiting at New York’s prestigious Macbeth Gallery and winning awards, placing him among the top names in American art.
Nichols painted a panoramic view of rolling farmlands in “I Cultivate My Garden,” 1940, which resembles Wood’s undulating Iowa landscapes. Nichols’s most overtly patriotic canvas, painted in 1940 when America was on the brink of World War II, “The Foundation,” with kids saluting as the stars and stripes are raised in front of their one-room schoolhouse, puts one in mind of Rockwell Kent’s paintings around the same time.
In 1940, the asthma plaguing his young daughter prompted Nichols and his wife to move to the drier climate of Arizona, beginning a pattern of peripatetic living. He adopted the trappings of a cowboy, supported himself teaching art, built a large ranch house in Tucson, ran an art school in what is today an art colony in Tubac and generally enjoyed the most successful years of his career.
In 1942, a Nichols painting of a snow-capped red barn was selected to illustrate the US Post Office’s annual tuberculosis seal stamp. Around this time, he became art editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, to which he contributed hundreds of illustrations over a five-year period.
Nichols became good friends with Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom he shared ideas about modern architecture and design, and with Western artist Maynard Dixon, who employed a lightened color palette in delicately brushed, panoramic views of mountains and plains. Dixon’s style influenced such Nichols paintings as “Evening in the Foothills,” 1940, with its huge cacti and cowboys riding through dramatic mountain scenery.
Inspired by the art and writings of Alaska aficionado Kent, Nichols traveled frequently to that wintry region, starting in the late 1930s. Settling in a cabin in Wasilla, he was initially overwhelmed by the majestic, all-encompassing frozen beauty of the land. He finally put down his impressions in “Eldred Rock Lighthouse,” 1937, which captures in dramatic blues and whites a moment literally frozen in time, in a setting far removed from Nebraska †or Arizona. This painting exemplifies the exhibition’s theme of “transcending Regionalism.” Art historian Henry Adams opines, “The most notable traits of Nichols’s work †the clean lines, the clear sense of light and dark, the wonderful sense of design and proportion †are based on Kent.”
Restless and eager for adventure, Nichols spent the late 1940s into the 1950s roaming around the Southwest and Mexico, and Mississippi. He married a couple of times, carried out illustration commissions and immersed himself in local customs and history.
Nichols’s wanderings took him to Guatemala for 16 years, during which he fell in love with the climate, topography and people, and married a native woman. He became an authority on Mayan civilization, selling rubbings of carvings from ruins to Brown University and tourists.
Feeling he was in the prime of his career, Nichols adapted his style to the world around him. His works ranged from hazy, lush mountainscapes to a sharp-edged geometric composition of a woman bathing surrounded by towering cliffs. Far from his Midwestern roots, these Guatemala paintings reflect the artist’s ability to change course stylistically in response to unfamiliar environments.
Even as he traveled far from Nebraska, Nichols never lost an opportunity to promote himself and his art and to respond to demand for views of his native state. One of his most compelling works, “After the Blizzard,” 1946, painted from memory in Arizona, shows a lonely farmer surrounded by snow-shrouded farm equipment, old car, precisely defined red barn and white snow drifts made brilliant by a bright sun.
“Land of Lincoln,” 1955, with a large profile of the martyred president overseeing a snow-swept farmstead, combines elements of Modernism, Surrealism and Abstraction. “Nichols ingeniously put these styles together,” says Guenther, “to deliver a complex and thought-provoking message.”
Guenther cites “Road from the Lake,” 1964, as an example of a late work that exemplifies “the simultaneous firm foundation and transitional style of Nichols’s art.” Supposedly set in Central America, the buildings and figures resemble forms painted earlier in Arizona, and the evergreens likely came from Alaskan observations. Only the steep rocks and long perspective seem native to Guatemala.
Nichols spent his final years in Nevada, Alaska and Arizona as a widower in declining mental and physical health, eventually succumbing to prostate cancer in Sedona, Ariz., at the age of 91. Dale Nichols’s lasting reputation is linked to his heartfelt evocations of Nebraska farms in all seasons. Compelling visually, they deftly explore man’s relationship to nature. A man of many talents, both personally and artistically, in many ways Nichols went beyond the better-known Regionalists to create on a broader, more creative stage.
This exhibition demonstrates that Nichols squarely belongs in the front ranks of the American Scene painters. As curator Guenther concludes, “Nichols’s artwork was relevant to the culture of the unsteady 1930s and remains important today.”
The 197-page catalog, with insightful chapters by Guenther, is exceptionally attractive and useful. It is published by the Bone Creek Museum and sells for $34.99, softcover.
The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts is at 1 Museum Drive. For information, 334-240-4333 or www.mmfa.org .
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