Maynard Dixon’s Depression-era paintings
by Dr. Mark Sublette
Shapes of Fear, Allegory, Earthknower, Pickets, and Scabs were just a few of the great works painted by Maynard Dixon during a time of great social unrest, change and struggle in the United States. The great depression, Maritime strikes, and a flood of migrants to California were just some of the defining elements that made up America’s 1930s.
Maynard Dixon, like most artists in America, struggled to make ends meet.
Maynard may have struggled financially but he thrived as a painter creating some of his greatest works during the 1930s. Although Dixon’s painting log showed he executed 282 pieces between 1930-1935, Dixon sold only a dozen paintings during this time.
Survival on so little income must have been difficult, but this did not deter Maynard Dixon’s artistic drive; productivity and creativity seemed to carry Dixon between 1930 and 1935.
Dixon’s thirties, a five year period which began after a decade of prosper and recognition, followed the completion of one of his most important murals done in the spring of 1929 for the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona.
The mural in this magnificent hotel inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and owned by the Wrigley Family was one of Maynard’s crowning jewels.
Dixon was scheduled to create the mate to the Biltmore mural until October 24th, 1929 changed everything.
With the great stock market crash and following depression most artists livelihood evaporated.
There was no money for art, even for those artists of great ability and those who were very well known, like Maynard Dixon.
1930 saw Charles Lindbergh break the cross country flying record, Bobby Jones win the U.S. Open, and the discovery of Pluto.
While Grant Wood painted his iconic image American Gothic, Maynard was painting his own masterpieces. These include two great works, Allegory, a nude Indian surrounded by a robe which is now in the Sacramento Library collection and Shapes of Fear, one of Dixon’s most compelling paintings.
Shapes of Fear won the Harold L. Mack popular prize at the annual exhibition held at the California Palace Legion of Honor. This painting is now in the permanent collection of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
In 1931, as the nation struggled, Maynard Dixon visited Taos. During this year Al Capone was found guilty of tax evasion and fined $50,000, a sum that would have bought Dixon’s entire lifework. Dixon, Dorothea, and their children lived in small adobe building in Taos New Mexico that was loaned to them by Mabel Lujan Dodge. Dixon wrote in a letter dated Oct. 8th, 1931 from Taos N.M to Harold Von Schmidt, “Well if we can drag it out here until Christmas I may show something myself -though it will be hell trying to out it. Other than financially we are going fine and wish you the same.”
Maynard Dixon did “out” some great paintings during his New Mexico stay to include Summer Storm and Old Patio.
Many of the paintings he produced during this stay from July 10th to January 15th, 1931 are now hanging in museums.
These include Watchers from the Housetop, the Phoenix Art Museum, Men of Red Earth, on loan to the Autry Museum from the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Earthknower, the Oakland Museum.
Dixon left Taos on a 20 below zero day and headed back to California.
It was on this trip home that Dixon came up with Forgotten Man. Dixon and Dorothea’s trip back to California that cold January day saw numerous homeless men out of work heading west.
A tremendous exodus occurred from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and Colorado. Years of poor agriculture and seven years of drought led to the Dust Bowl and the migrations of the “Okies”.
While Congress was designating “The Star Spangled Banner” as our national anthem, Dixon saw an America he did not like and this troubled him deeply.
While in Taos Dixon wrote concerning the west, “The most interesting thing in this country for me is a sense of dark tragedy, imminent, and just beneath the light surface: the unchangeable Indians, always facing toward death, the starving Mexicans, already half dead, and the garrulous gringos oppressed by a vague feeling of impending doom.”
The next year in 1932 E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney wrote a new anthem and it was a national hit, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” followed in 1933 by “Remember my Forgotten Name” by Al Dubin and Harry Warren. The country was in a great depression and art was a luxury not a necessity. But if you’re a painter you paint, and Dixon did just that.
During the summer of 1933 Maynard Dixon, his wife Dorothea Lange and their two young boys camped and painted in southern Utah.
Two months of the trip were spent in the canyons of Zion National Park. Notch in the Wall was one of over forty pieces Dixon painted during his trip. This painting was done vertically to capture the grandeur of the rock formation, purposefully limiting the Dixon Sky to add to the overall drama of the canyon walls.
Maynard and Dorothea stopped by the Boulder Dam construction on their way home to San Francisco. He would return six months later under a PWAP award and document this monumental project. Upon his return to San Francisco, Dixon’s Utah work was exhibited at Gumps in San Francisco and Phillip Ilsely’s Gallery in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
None of the nearly forty paintings sold.
Dixon’s Social Realism period was a brief but compelling period.
The majority of his output occurred between the spring of 1934 and the summer of ’35. During the same time Maynard Dixon was completing what many art historians consider his most import work, the nation and the world were in turmoil. Danger and death seemed everywhere. Bonnie and Clyde were killed, Will Rogers died in a plane crash, The Nazi government revoked German citizenship for Jews, and Stalin purged the communist party killing and imprisoning nearly 8 million people.
The years 1934-35 were a difficult time for the world and Dixon. These social realism paintings and drawings are now primarily in museum collections with the mother load housed at the BYU fine art museum. Dixon sold most of his Social Commentary paintings to Brigham Young University in 1937. A total of 85 pieces (including seven social pieces for $2700.)
Dixon’s first real social commentary began in April of 1934. Dixon documented the building of Boulder Dam through the PWPA (Public Works of Art Project).
He went to Boulder Dam in April and painted, drew, and absorbed this once in a life time industrial event. This experience affected Dixon deeply as he saw working conditions which were severe at best. His brother-in-law was one of the day laborers which brought the project to a personal level.
These first socially conscious pieces showed man pit against mother earth to build the largest dam in the world. With titles like Cat-Walk and Man Against Rock, Dixon sees men as small and insignificant figures against the earth. Dixon sums up his feelings in a poem he wrote while in Boulder City, Industrial Center April 1934:
Well, somehow I got born
and right enough,
and grew up somehow;
got me a girl & got married too,
and that was interesting.
Then had us some kids, of course,
some six or seven or eight,-
and that was interesting.
So- we both worked like hell
and got us a home (we thought)
all right enough,
but soon the bank got that;
and keeping up the insurance
was some interesting.
Well- the years kept coming &
all right enough-
we could not stop ’em;
and then one hungry night we
and that was interesting-
we heard God laughing….
God!- and what a laugh!
By the time Dixon returned from his month in the Nevada Desert, San Francisco was in turmoil.
The Waterfront Strike began May 9th. Two thousand miles of shore line were shut down and the human to human interaction between rioters and police began. Dorothea had already been actively documenting unemployment and hungry men below the streets of her studio. A potentially dangerous activity for anyone, but particularly for a lone women with polio, Dorothea steadfastly took photographs of unhappy, often desperate men.
When Dixon returned from Boulder Dam, he and Dorothea set about capturing the moment, Dixon on canvas and paper and Dorothea on film. Many of Maynard’s small drawings would be turned into major oils. Works by the names of Progress, Scab, Pickets, and Struggle Upward. The major paintings that resulted were studys in symmetry, and shadow. Color which has always been an important component of Maynard Dixon’s paintings became secondary.
A new palette evolved, monochromatic in nature, with shades of dark blues and black becoming the new major colors. These colors reflected Dixon’s own mood of gloom which he relates in his poem Sanctuary July 18th 1935:
Lonely- lonely & vast….
this is the ultimate peak & the
here begins the long release & the
here the trail ends.
The good horse is tired now:
throw the reins down
take the bit from his mouth,
tie up the bridle snug to the saddle
Turn the horse loose;
he will leisurely find his way
back to the home corral in the quiet
Come on then, you buzzards,-
only a little while it will take for
you to find me.
The wide and pitiless circling,
the long and slowly descending glide
of your dark & darkness-confirm
to me shall be welcome.
Come on, buzzards, make a clean
Tear the old garments away-
the outworn ridiculous garments,
these, of my life-
tear them away.
Pick the bones clean-
Leave nothing small or unworthy-
let them lie free in the rain, free to
the white-cleansing sun.
Leave only my thoughts.
These thoughts that once made me a
surely will find their way
back to the home corral in the quiet
July 18, 1935
Maynard’s turmoil which was so evident in his poetry was precipitated by the demise of his 15 year marriage from his equally famous photographer wife Dorothea Lange.
Their marriage would fall apart in 1935. Dorothea had found her own voice artistically with iconic images like White Bread Line Angel, 1933.
Dorothea now needed a partner who supported her vision and could add stability for her and her two young sons. Paul Taylor was that some one, he was dependable and had a stable income as a professor at Berkeley. Maynard and Dorothea split amicably and shared parental rights with their two young sons Dan and John.
Maynard Dixon would continue to paint and draw with many great works still to come. Although Maynard’s Tucson pieces, created during the last six years of his life, would become some of his greatest landscapes, Dixon’s thirties works will always have a deep emotional edge as they are created by some one who had first hand experience and the skill to share it…Dixon’s Thirties.