Maynard Dixon, 1875-1946

by Donald J. Hagerty


The above image of the front cover of the revised edition of Desert Dreams: The Art and Life of Maynard Dixon hints at the inside beauty of this long-awaited edition and the mastery of the acclaimed Western artist. Gibbs Smith, publisher of the upcoming volume, is assembling the financing package, including advanced sales, at this time to produce the new edition.

The new version will have a trim size of 11" x 12' and will contain 324 pages. There will be 24 new color plates, in addition to the existing 100 color plates, along with 25 new black-and-white photos and 50 existing black-and-white images. There will also be a major new essay by John Dixon. Mr. Smith may be reached at (801) 544-9800. The following brief essay is excerpted from the inside flaps of the book's dust cover.


To me, no painter has ever quite understood the light, the distances, the aboriginal ghostliness of the American West as well as Maynard Dixon. The great mood of his work is solitude, the effect of land and space on people. While his work stands perfectly well on its claims to beauty, it offers a spiritual view of the West indispensable to anyone who would understand it. - Thomas McGuane


Ansel Adams once commented that for Maynard Dixon, "the West was uncrowded, unlittered, unorganized and free." Adams might have added that Dixon would allow no fences to surround him, imaginary or real. Ultimately Dixon argued that American painting could best work its influence on the lives and thoughts of people when painters based their work upon native material and their native reaction to it. Maynard Dixon was a regionalist long before the term arrived, with a confirmed belief in the vitality of America. His region was the arid landscape of southern California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Although he was geographically isolated from the mainstream, Maynard Dixon should be regarded as a pivotal connection between late nineteenth-century and contemporary American art. His work opens the way for the sparse rock-, cloud-, and desert-scapes vocabulary developed by a number of artists, including Georgia 0'Keeffe, Conrad Buff, Helen Frankenthaler, and Ed Mell.

Dixon's long, productive life was, in itself, a work of art. From the beginning Dixon was different: an authentic, iconoclastic, self-created individual. Born in Fresno, California, in 1875, Dixon ended his formal art training in early 1893, after three miserable months at San Francisco's Mark Hopkins Institute of Art. Most of his American contemporaries made an obligatory pilgrimage to Paris for study; Maynard did not go. Instead he became an active and outspoken, if sometimes ambivalent, participant in California's cultural life.

By the middle 1890s, in an era acknowledged as the Golden Age of Illustration, he was one of the country's foremost purveyors of nostalgic, Old West images. Hundreds of his pictures appeared in leading newspapers, magazines, and in books by such authors as Jack London, John Muir, O. Henry, Mary Austin, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, and Clarence Mulford (of the Hopalong Cassidy series).

After 1912, when he concluded he could no longer portray the West in "false" terms, Dixon devoted increasing attention to easel and mural painting, experimenting with impressionism, post-impressionism, and large-scale mural decoration, while still pursuing a career in commercial art, particularly poster design. In 1921, supported and encouraged by his second wife, photographer Dorothea Lange, Dixon downplayed his commercial art career. He was interested in modern art techniques, but he rejected any assessment of a "one best way," and scorned experimental painting borrowed from European movements. The "narrow orthodoxy of modernism, where self-expression is used as an alibi for idiocy" angered him.

Maynard Dixon was also, for much of his life, a solitary desert pilgrim. From 1900 to his death in 1946, Dixon periodically roamed the West's plains, mesas, and deserts on foot, horseback, buckboard-even by automobile-drawing, painting, and writing, pursuing a transcendent awareness of the region's spirit. These long, often solitary excursions into lands "where no one went," were prompted by intense personal and philosophic examinations. "Quantum Sufficet," a verse he wrote in 1921, gives a vivid picture of its author:

O, I am Maynard Dixon,
And I live out here, alone
With pencil and pen and paint-brush
And a camp stool for my throne
King of the desert country
Holding a magic key
To the world's magnificent treasure
None can unlock but me!
At times come terrible moments
When desire fills full my soul,
And women and wine and cities
Seem a compelling goal;­­
But I wake with a start to my desert
And its lovely vistas unfurled,--
I'd rather be Maynard Dixon,
Than anyone else in the world!

Through long and sympathetic observation, he learned how plains rise and fall as they flow toward the horizon and how the architecture of mesa and butte marches rhythmically over the landscape into the infinite freedom of a deep blue sky. Whether Dixon painted in the field or studio, he portrayed the West in its own colors, its own light, its own forms, shaping his work with an instinctive feeling for landscape elements, demanding a standard beyond objectivity. Maynard Dixon had something to say. Where many have looked, few have seen. Among these few is Maynard Dixon.


Folio of Images


Carson, Nevada,1935, oil on canvasboard, 25 x 20 inches, Private collection


Desert Shepherdess, 1922, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches, Mitchell-Brown Fine Art, Inc. and Medicine Man Galleries


A Desert Valley: Panamint, California, 1922, oil on canvasboard, 22 x 22 inches, Arizona West Galleries


I Call Myself a Soldier, 1912, oil on artists board, 30 x 20 inches, Gerald Peters Gallery


The Lone Trail, 1912, oil on board, 20 x 30 inches, William A. Karges Fine Art


Morning After Snow, 1929, oil on board, 16 x 20 inches, Medicine Man Gallery


Navajolands, 1925, oil on canvas, 26 x 30 inches, William A. Karges Fine Art


Silent Hour, 1931-32, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches. Private collection


Sky and Sandstone, 1915, oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches, Private collection


Young Indian Mother, 1912, oil on canvas, 10 x 12 inches, Mitchell-Brown Fine Art, Inc.


About the Author

Donald J. Hagerty is a teacher and administrator at the University of California at Davis. This revised edition of the first comprehensive monograph on Dixon is the product of fifteen years of research. It reflects the cooperation of Dixon's family, and that of museums, galleries, libraries, and collectors around the country.


Editor's note:

The above essay and related images are published in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the author.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information about Maynard Dixon please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Revised 11/1/99, 10/3/11

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 10/3/11

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