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Fort George Hill

On view

Fort George Hill

Artist: Preston Dickinson (American, 1891 - 1930)

Date: 1915
Medium: Oil on linen
Dimensions:
Framed: 19 1/8 × 22 1/8 × 1 1/2in. (48.6 × 56.2 × 3.8cm)
Overall: 14 × 17in. (35.6 × 43.2cm)
Signed: Lower right (black paint): 'Preston / 1915 / Dickinson'
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.132
Label Text
Like many American artists in the early 20th century, Dickinson lived in Paris to absorb the lessons of progressive painting by artists such as Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). In Fort George Hill, Dickinson composed the upper Manhattan landscape with geometric lines and vibrant color, both of which contribute to the energetic spirit of modern urban life.

Dickinson stylized forms so that the ascent from bottom to top of the scene is a series of zig-zagging switch-backs. The rounded hills are alternating yellow and green, and Dickinson placed red signs to assist the eye on its upward trajectory, from the old-fashioned, single-family house at the base to the uniform, modern high-rise apartments at top.

Mary E. Murray

Text Entries

Fort George Hill, painted during the spring of 1915, is thematically, stylistically, and professionally significant for the development of the art of Preston Dickinson. Having only recently returned to his native New York City after a four-year sojourn in Paris, Dickinson had just established a long-term affiliation with the Daniel Gallery late in 1914 as well as begun his first series of drawings and paintings focusing on the terrain and architecture of the Harlem River Region of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.(1) This painting is one of the few completed oils from this series and is a depiction of a well-known landmark, just north of High Bridge in Washington Heights, a residential area of Manhattan.

Like other American artists at this time, Dickinson was fascinated by the American urban scene; but unlike Robert Henri, John Sloan, and Jerome Myers, who dealt with the ongoing life of New York City, Dickinson did not concentrate on the city’s inhabitants, nor was he socially critical. Rather, his inclination was primarily pictorial. In his images of New York City from 1914-16, as well as those from 1922-24, his emphasis was predominantly architectonic, but also dynamic, picturesque, and symbolic.

Although he is known primarily as a Precisionist, Dickinson created artworks that are more varied in style; his works are nontheoretical and combine aspects from a variety of modernist modes that he was attracted to while he was in Paris. Despite its simplified lighting effects and geometric shapes, Fort George Hill is very different from his early Precisionist drawing of about this time, High Bridge (Cleveland Museum of Art). Instead, Dickinson accentuated the energy inherent in the scene by simplifying the architectural details and color choices and by exaggerating the rhythmic curves and diagonals on the hillside. Due to the low vantage point, the apartment buildings on the crest of the hill gain grandeur and provide an effective counterpoint to the more intimately scaled building and billboards below them. If the simplified geometric shapes and flattened details are evocative of aspects of Cubist art and naive painting, the intense colors reveal the artist’s growing interest in the art of the Fauves and the Synchromists and anticipate the colorful emphasis in his paintings of the later 1910s.(2) The brilliant greens and yellows of the park below the tenements are vitalized by the highly saturated reds on the billboards and by the thin band of ultramarine blue that hovers over the clouds in the sky.

Fort George Hill successfully conveys the freshness and energy of springtime light, color, and breezes. On another level, however, the contrast between the apartment buildings and the small white house below them is indicative of the city’s continual growth. The house seems to be a relic from another era, While the brightly colored signs announce the future development of the area. A billboard at the lower right even serves as an advertisement for Dickinson’s future by containing his signature. Coincidentally, this work, purchased by Edward W. Root in May 1915, was the first artwork by Dickinson to become part of a major private collection.

Rubenfeld

Notes

1. For additional biographical information on Dickinson, see Louis Bouche, “Preston Dickinson," Living American Artist Bulletin (October 1939), pp. 2-4; Dictionary of American Biography (Supplement 1), s.v. “Dickinson, Preston.” See also Ruth Cloudman, Preston Dickinson 1889-1930, exhibition catalog (Lincoln, Nebr.: Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, 1979), and Richard Rubenfeld, “Preston Dickinson: An American Modernist, with a Catalogue of Selected Works” (Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1985).

2. For Dickinson‘s interest in brilliant, non-associative color, see Thomas Hart Benton, An American in Art (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1969), p. 53. Benton, a colleague of Dickinson, wrote that about 1916 the two artists were experimenting with Synchromism. The Utica picture reveals this tendency in Dickinson’s art a year earlier (Rubenfeld, 1985, pp. 106-8). A full analysis of Fort George Hill can be found on pp. 337-38 of Rubenfeld.

 

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