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The Yellow Shawl,
Sidney E. Dickinson (1890 – 1980)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
40 x 46 inches
Signature Details: SIDNEY E. DICKINSON
Status: Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina

Sidney Dickinson was born in Wallingford, Connecticut, the son of a Congregational minister, and raised in various places including upstate New York, central Alabama, and Fargo, North Dakota. Interested in art at an early age, he studied at the Art Students League in New York City under William Merritt Chase and George Bridgman, and at the National Academy of Design with Douglas Volk. Known primarily as a figure and portrait painter, he exhibited widely, was the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, and is represented in many museum and private collections.

Although Dickinson spent most of his career in New York City, in l917 and 1918 he resided in Calhoun, Lowndes County, Alabama, where his maternal aunt, Charlotte Rogers Thorn, had founded a model school for colored children in 1892. A friend of Booker T. Washington, who served on its original board of trustees, she was in charge of the Calhoun Colored School from its inception until her death in 1932. Miss Thorn was supported in these efforts by her family. Dickinson’s brother, a civil engineer, laid out the roads and improved the buildings in Calhoun, and his father, Reverend Charles Edward Dickinson, started a church there. While in residence, Dickinson coached the school’s highly regarded baseball team, and painted the portraits of family members, students and friends. 

The models for The Yellow Shawl, Morning Ride, and The Alabama Studio were students at Calhoun. The woman wearing the shawl may be Emma. She appears in several of the Alabama pictures, including the studio scene, but she is older in this undated example suggesting that the picture was painted later, probably around 1926. The boy in Morning Ride, painted in 1918, bears a striking resemblance to Emma, and is probably her brother. Though the picture was obviously a studio invention, horses were kept at Calhoun and Dickinson undoubtedly composed the scene from direct observation.  

The Alabama Studio is one of Dickinson’s most ambitious figurative works, which in its size alone ---over six feet high---signifies the importance he must have attached to it. He probably intended to exhibit it at the National Academy of Design in 1918, along with the Portrait of Emily Hallowell (a teacher at Calhoun) and Maggie: The Octoroon (a student), both presently unlocated. According to an inscription on the reverse (no longer extant), the models are Emma, Maggie and Sammy.  Dickinson was probably led to the subject by the example of Chase, who produced dozens of studio interiors. Like his famous teacher, Dickinson placed himself in the scene. His mirrored image, surrounded by a gilded frame, is one of at least fifteen self-portraits. Most, like this one, show him in the act of painting.  

A number of the paintings from this period have a strongly colored background in a dominant hue, often brown or blue. Figures are broadly brushed in spontaneous strokes, with patches of thick impasto in the light areas. An enthusiastic practitioner of alla prima painting, Dickinson “liked to finish a head at one sitting” (Art League News, n.p.), and customarily worked with at least six inches of thickly crusted paint on one end of his palette. He often completed a portrait in a sitting of three or four hours.  

As versatile as he was prolific, Dickinson painted some of the most interesting personalities of his time, including such fellow artists as his cousin Edwin Dickinson, Raphael Soyer, and the sculptor Robert Aitken.  Other important sitters were James B. Conant, President of Harvard University, and Thomas E. Kilby, who was elected to represent Calhoun County, Alabama, in the State Senate in 1911, and served as Governor from 1919 to 1923.  

Dickinson painted few landscapes. The smaller of the two represented here is dated 1926. The broad, fluent handling, as well as the subdued palette, are in a style unlike that employed for the figurative works. The long brushstrokes, often parallel, give both pictures the character of oil sketches, though the larger version was undoubtedly painted in the studio.  Perhaps Dickinson sought to retain the sketches’ feeling of immediacy by maintaining the free, independent movement of the brushstrokes and their scale against the motif. The foreground figure in the study was eliminated in the final version, though it still exists as pentimenti.   

While Dickinson composed his portraits and figurative works directly in the studio, his working method for landscapes seems to have remained the traditional one of painting studies to serve as the basis for finished works.  The skyline in the background is probably Montgomery, Alabama, suggesting that the sketch was made around the time Dickinson painted Thomas Kilby’s portrait, shortly after his term of office ended. Kilby’s portrait still hangs in the State House in Montgomery. Nancy Rivard Shaw

The author is grateful to Nathaniel Dickinson, the artist’s son, for sharing information on his father’s career, the Calhoun Colored School, and his great-aunt, Charlotte Rogers Thorn.   

“The Unpigeonholed,” Art League News, October 15, 1950, n.p.
I am indebted to Robert Austin for bringing this article to my attention.      

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This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.


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