Artist Biography

Ernest Lawson

(1873 - 1939)

Table of Contents

    A popular member of “The Eight” who depicted modern, urban life using a bold, impressionist technique.

    By Nina Sangimino

    I. Biography

    Ernest Lawson, while Canadian-born, became one of the most important American modernist painters in the beginning of the twentieth century. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he moved to Kansas City, Missouri in 1888 where he studied art for the first time at the Kansas City Art Institute. He continued his artistic training through night classes at the Santa Clara Art Academy when he moved to Mexico City with his father, a physician. Employed by English engineering company Pearson & Son as a draftsman while in Mexico, Lawson was able to save enough money to fund his future lessons in both the United States and France. In 1890, he moved to New York to study at the Art Students League under renowned American impressionists Williard Leroy Metcalf, John Henry Twachtman, and Julian Alden Weir. Lawson’s first biographer, F. Newlin Price, stated in his 1930 monograph on the artist that his “real beginning” as a painter did not occur until the summer of 1892 when he learned plein-air painting with Twachtman and Weir at the artist colony in Cos Cob, Connecticut. However, he did not find instant success in his experiments outside of the studio. Price recounts that Lawson’s first completed panel at Cos Cob was far from a masterpiece:

    He was proud of his achievement! It was his idea of art complete. But Weir in the first criticism exclaimed “By Jove, I have never seen so bad a picture. Who painted it?” Lawson admitted his authorship, then they talked and the young art student saw his masterpiece all in a new light. There was nothing there after all, nothing he had seen, nothing he had felt. In a few days he came in with the sketch of an old red barn, that had color and dash and a relentless energy of light. “Fine. Who painted this?” And so Lawson started to arrive.[1]

    The next step for Lawson was an obligatory trip to France to refine his artistic skills. In 1893, he went to Paris to study at the Académie Julian with Jean Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant. However, he soon gave up classroom study to continue painting en plein air and was greatly influenced by the French impressionist Alfred Sisley, whom he met while abroad. Lawson was careful, however, to not become overwhelmed by his French influences. He stated, “French influence kills if taken in too large a dose—witness most of our best artists who have become to all intents and purposes Frenchmen in work and thought.”[2] His interest was in developing an American perspective, not in absorbing French philosophies, and by 1894 master American impressionist William Merritt Chase dubbed him “America’s greatest landscape painter.”[3] That same year, he exhibited publicly for the first time at the renowned Paris Salon, in which he showed two paintings; 1897 marked his American exhibition debut at the National Academy of Design.

    After his return to the United States in 1896, he spent time teaching in Columbus, Georgia before finally settling in Washington Heights, New York in 1898. It was here that Lawson created his greatest works, capturing an American landscape on the precipice of urbanization. During his Washington Heights years, he perfected his delicate use of color which circa 1920 critic James Huneker described as a “palette of crushed jewels.” Price was especially taken with Lawson’s careful handling of color: “His deep quality is color—the jade-like beauty of a summer night or pearl-like miracle of first snow.”[4]

    The year 1904 marked two important milestones in Lawson’s career: he won the silver medal at the international St. Louis Universal Exposition, and befriended fellow artist William Glackens. It was via Glackens that Lawson was introduced to Robert Henri’s exclusive circle of modernist painters in New York. Discouraged by Lawson’s own rejection from the National Academy of Design in 1905, as well as the rejection of George Luks, Glackens, and Everett Shinn in 1906, the group exhibited together in 1908 at Macbeth Gallery’s seminal exhibition, The Eight. Lawson’s inclusion in this show, which brought recognition to the work of realist painters in New York, solidified his place in history. In Guy Péne du Bois’s 1932 biography of the artist, he describes the Macbeth exhibition as “epoch making.”

    The lovers of the gentle national painting of that day were beside themselves. They had had their first view of realism, of the realism of Daumier, Courbet, Lautrec, Degas and Ibels…It is difficult now to realize that his particular show could have been considered so shocking. Of the men in it…Lawson was the only pure landscapist and the only one of them also, at that time, to use the palette of the Impressionists.[5]

    That same year he was finally elected an Associate member of the National Academy and was awarded their First Hallgarten prize. Lawson continued his association with the most progressive artists of the period by exhibiting at the 1913 Armory Show.

    Lawson continued to exhibit throughout his life at every major venue and was frequently awarded for his efforts. He was also a respected teacher and spent time at the Kansas City Art Institute and Broadmoor Art Academy, Colorado Springs. Later in life, Lawson suffered from arthritis and in 1936 moved to Coral Gables, Florida in search of a warmer climate. His life was tragically cut short when he was found drowned on the beach in 1939. Only seven years before, Péne du Bois praised him, as Chase had previously, as our greatest American landscapist:

    Since the death of Corot and the coming of Cézanne, landscape painting has, along with all objective painting, gone out of fashion, just as the feeling of humility toward nature has been wiped out of modern thinking…But in Lawson the liking for the countryside, for its light and air and form is without compromise, a simple thing. It is pure because it is not tortured into symbolical shapes by the ruthless requirements of a philosophical or scientific doctrine.[6]

    II. Chronology

    • 1873 Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia
    • 1883 Moves to Kingston, Ontario to live with his aunt
    • 1888 Moves to Kansas City, Missouri to reunite with his parents; studies at the Kansas City Art Institute
    • 1889 Travels to Mexico, works as a draftsman, and attends the Santa Clara Art Academy
    • 1890 Moves to New York and joins the Art Students League where he studies with Williard Leroy Metcalf, John Henry Twachtman, and Julian Alden Weir
    • 1892 Spends the summer with Twachtman and Weir at Cos Cob, Connecticut where he learns to paint en plein air
    • 1893 Travels to Paris and studies at the Académie Julian with Jean Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant
    • 1894 Exhibits two paintings at the Paris Salon, the first time his work is exhibited; returns to America to marry Ella Holman, then the two return to France in November
    • 1896 Returns to America via Canada
    • 1897 Exhibits for the first time in the United States at the National Academy of Design; begins teaching in Columbus, Georgia
    • 1898 Settles in Washington Heights, New York City
    • 1903–4 Travels to France
    • 1904 Wins silver medal at St. Louis Universal Exposition; meets William Glackens
    • 1905 Is rejected by the National Academy of Design
    • 1907 Wins Sesnan Medal at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
    • 1908 Exhibits in Macbeth Gallery’s influential exhibition The Eight with Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan; is elected Associate member of the National Academy of Design; is awarded First Hallgarten Prize by National Academy
    • 1913 Exhibits at the groundbreaking Armory Show
    • 1915 Wins gold medal at Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco
    • 1916 Wins W.A. Clark Prize and silver medal at Corcoran Gallery of Art; travels to Spain and paints in Toledo and Segovia
    • 1917 Wins Inness Gold Medal at National Academy of Design; is elected Academician of National Academy of Design
    • 1919 Solo exhibition at the Nova Scotia Museum of Fine Arts, Halifax; wins Temple Gold Medal at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
    • 1921 Wins Altman Prize from the National Academy of Design; wins first prize at the Pittsburgh International Exposition
    • 1923 Spends summer painting in Huntington, Long Island
    • 1924 Travels to Nova Scotia
    • 1926 Teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute
    • 1927 Teaches at Broadmoor Art Academy, Colorado Springs
    • 1928 Returns to Nova Scotia for his mother’s funeral
    • 1930 Wins Saltus Gold Medal from the National Academy of Design; exhibits in Toronto and Montreal; F. Newlin Price publishes his monograph of the artist; travels to France to visit daughter and grandchildren
    • 1931 Visits Florida for the first time
    • 1932 Guy Pène du Bois publishes his monograph on the artist
    • 1935 Participates as judge in Greater Washington Annual Independent Art Exhibition
    • 1936 Moves to Coral Gables, Florida seeking a warmer climate for relief from arthritis
    • 1937 Shaw Prize and Presentation Dinner at Salmagundi Club
    • 1939 Paints mural for the post office of Short Hills, New Jersey; is found dead on the beach in Miami on December 18

    III. Collections

    • Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA
    • Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, OH
    • The Arkell Museum at Canajoharie, NY
    • Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Canada
    • Art Institute of Chicago, IL
    • The Barnes Foundation, PA
    • Brooklyn Museum, NY
    • The Butler Institute of American Art, OH
    • Carnegie Museum of Art, PA
    • Chrysler Museum of Art, VA
    • The Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
    • Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, CO
    • Columbus Museum of Art, OH
    • Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
    • Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
    • Farnsworth Art Museum, ME
    • Figge Art Museum, IA
    • Greenwich Historical Society, CT
    • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
    • Hunter Museum of American Art, TN
    • Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
    • Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
    • The Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College, VA
    • McNay Art Museum, TX
    • Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, MA
    • Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY
    • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
    • The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN
    • Montclair Art Museum, NJ
    • Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, AL
    • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
    • Muskegon Museum of Art, MI
    • National Academy Museum, NY
    • National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada
    • The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, MO
    • New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
    • Newark Museum, NJ
    • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
    • The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
    • Reading Public Museum, PA
    • Rockford Art Museum, IL
    • Saint Louis Art Museum, MO
    • San Antonio Museum of Art, TX
    • The San Diego Museum of Art, CA
    • Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
    • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
    • Telfair Museums, GA
    • Toledo Museum of Art, OH
    • The University of Arizona Museum of Art, AZ
    • University of Michigan Museum of Art, MI
    • Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, CT
    • Whitney Museum of American Art, NY

    IV. Exhibitions

    • Art Institute of Chicago
    • Whitney Museum of American Art
    • 1894 Salon des Artistes Français, Paris
    • 1897, 1908, 1916–17, 1921, 1928, 1930, 1934 National Academy of Design, First Hallgarten Prize, 1908; Altman Prize 1916, 1921, 1928; Inness Gold Medal, 1917; Saltus Medal, 1930
    • 1899–1940 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Annual, Sesnan medal, 1907; Temple Gold Medal, 1920
    • 1904 St. Louis Exposition, silver medal
    • 1907 American Art Society, Philadelphia, gold medal
    • 1907–39 Corcoran Gallery of Art Biennial, participant 16 times; Second W. A. Clark Prize and silver medal, 1916
    • 1908 Macbeth Gallery, New York, The Eight
    • 1912 Newport Art Association, inaugural exhibition
    • 1913 The Armory Show
    • 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, gold medal
    • 1917–18, 1936 Society of Independent Artists
    • 1920s Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts
    • 1921 Pittsburgh International Exposition, first prize
    • 1933–34 National Arts Club, prize
    • 1936 Salmagundi Club, prize
    • 1970 ACA Galleries, New York, retrospective
    • 1995 Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Ashcan Artists and their New York

    V. Memberships

    • American Society of Painters, Sculptors and Gravers
    • Association of American Painters and Sculptors, founder
    • National Academy of Design, Associate 1908, Academician 1917
    • National Arts Club
    • National Institute of Arts and Letters
    • New Society of Artists
    • The Century Association

    VI. Notes

    F. Newlin Price, Ernest Lawson, Canadian-American (Jaques & Company, Inc., 1930), n.p.
    Constance H. Schwartz, The Shock of Modernism in America: The Eight and Artists of the Armory Show (Roslyn Harbor, New York: Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, 1984), 25.
    Price, n.p.
    Ibid, n.p.
    Guy Pène du Bois, Ernest Lawson (New York: American Art Series, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1932), 9.
    Ibid, 7.

    VII. Suggested Resources

    • Anderson, Dennis R. Ernest Lawson Retrospective. New York: ACA Galleries, 1976.
    • Berry-Hill, Henry & Sidney. Ernest Lawson: American Impressionist, 1873–1939. Leigh-on-Sea, England: F. Lewis, Publishers, Limited, 1968.
    • Ernest Lawson papers, 1907–1967, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
    • Falk, Peter H. Who Was Who in American Art. Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1999.
    • Karpiscak, Adeline Lee. Ernest Lawson, 1873–1939. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1979.
    • Mecklenburg, Virgina, Robert Snyder, and Rebecca Zurier. Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York, 1897–1917. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1995.
    • Pène du Bois, Guy. Ernest Lawson. New York: American Art Series, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1932.
    • Price, F. Newlin. Ernest Lawson, Canadian-American. Jaques & Company, Inc., 1930.
    • Schwartz, Constance H. The Shock of Modernism in America: The Eight and Artists of the Armory Show. Roslyn Harbor, New York: Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, 1984.

    Interested in Ernest Lawson?

    Fill out the form below

    Interested in Artist