Sheldon Museum of Art


Date of this Version



An exhibition organized by the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska in collaboration with the Nebraska Art Association, Lincoln


During the decade before the first World War, many young American artists went to Europe to study. A number of them, deeply impressed by the new movements in European art, returned home to develop their own approaches to abstract form and color. Preston Dickinson was one of these. Although the contributions of these artists to the growth of abstraction in American art have been undergoing a reappraisal for some time, Dickinson's place in these developments has not been evaluated and has remained somewhat unclear. He is best known for his association with the Precisionist movement of the 1920's, but even here, the extent of his involvement is not fully understood.

Although in 1927 the New York Sun critic, possibly Henry McBride, wrote that Preston Dickinson had "won an enviable position among contemporary painters,"6 the critical response to his work in his time was mixed. To be sure, writers on art often gave high praise to his work and the list of private collectors and museums owning his paintings and drawings is impressive. Still, even today, an uncertainty about his place in American art exists, which at this point can best be resolved by turning to the evidence of the works themselves. But first, it may be helpful to set them against the background of Dickinson's life and personality.

From the recollections of those who knew him and from his few existing letters, a fairly unified picture of Dickinson emerges. In appearance, he was short and slight with blond hair, and on the basis of his photograph by Nickolas Muray, was delicately handsome in a way more in fashion in the heyday of F. Scott Fitzgerald than today. His acquaintances remember his hoarse voice and recall with amusement his affectation of a pronounced English accent "acquired over the years."

In 1939 Louis Bouche wrote a sensitive reminiscence of his friend, which brings together many of the threads of his life and personality that recur in the recollections of those who knew him: "All his life, Dickinson was poor. His sister gave him shelter in Valley Stream, Long Island, but he disliked suburban life. "'hen ever he could get a few dollars together, sometimes by peddling his pictures himself, he would appear in New York for a few days to be with his friends, cursing the life of an artist, his poverty, cursing conventionality and his own frustration, drinking and talking sometimes all night. He never knew what it was to play safe, either in art or in life, fin· the idea of safety was not in his make-up. He was generous with the only thing he had-his pictures-many of them he gave away. In conversation he was often brilliant for he was an intellectual as well as an artist. At other times, his gaiety was hilarious. One always sensed however that his was a tortured soul. His nervous system gave him no rest. His friends knew that his harsh voice and brutal cynicism were the protective covering for a deep sensitivity and gentleness."