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 Ernest Lawson  (1873 - 1939)

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Lived/Active: New York/Connecticut/Florida/Nova Scotia / Canada/France      Known for: landscape, floral, genre, nocturne

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Part of a group of New York painters called "The Eight*," Ernest Lawson was fascinated by the urban environment of early 20th-century New York and also the bucolic landscape of the Hudson River.  His style was close to pure Impressionism*, and many of his works focus on the influence of human beings on the landscapes, quite often with the suggestion that someone has just been a part of the scene.  He also completed numerous snow scenes as well as depictions of the less-than-beautiful side of life that including squatter's shacks, railroads and urban city views.  Although he associated with the Social Realists* led by Robert Henri, he did not adopt that subject matter as the focus of his painting.  On his canvases, he used a palette knife and heavy impasto with bold, bright colors.

Born in Nova Scotia, he spent his boyhood in Ontario because his father, a doctor, had taken a job in Kansas City, and Lawson decided not to move until he turned age 15.  When he joined his family, he studied at the Kansas City Art Institute.  The next year he traveled in Mexico with his father and worked as a draftsman and studied at the Santa Clara Art Academy.  In 1890, he went to New York to enroll in the Art Students League* and from 1892-1894, spent time at the summer school of Cos Cob, Connecticut with his friends and Art Students League teachers John Twachtmann and J. Alden Weir and other Impressionist* painters at that art colony. There, he first painted "en plein air"*, meaning outside in the 'open air', and reportedly his exposure to new ideas at Cos Cob shaped the remainder of his career. From Weir, he heard these comments: "You are trying to get the whole world on one canvas.  Simplify everything and stick to your first impressions." (Spencer, 165)

From 1893 to 1898, he was in France which included study in Paris at the Academy Julian* with Jean Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant.  In Paris, he shared a studio with Somerset Maugham, who used him as the prototype for Frederic Lawson in his novel, Of Human Bondage.

In France, Lawson studied only briefly at the Academy and spent most of his time painting in the countryside pursuing his new love of working "en plein-air". Returning to New York City in 1894, he settled there for many years, living from 1898 in Washington Heights, which then was a rural area with much wooded landscape and grazing animals.  He painted the bucolic landscape around him, especially the Hudson River in winter, and generally led a quiet life although he continued to travel including back to France and to Spain and throughout New England including Cos Cob, Connecticut and Cornish, New Hampshire.  He was active somewhat in Canada, where he exhibited in Toronto with the Canadian Art Club, of which he was a member and which resulted in having his first painting purchased by the National Gallery of Canada.  He also returned to Kansas City to teach at the Art Institute in 1926 and the Broadmoor Academy* in from 1927 to 1928.

In 1908, he participated in the 1908 exhibition of "The Eight" at Macbeth Gallery*. Unlike Henri and the other Social Realists of "The Eight," Lawson preferred vistas to intimate views and was the only artist in that exhibition who painted landscapes rather than street life.  His affiliation with The Eight was interesting because most members of the group, excepting the highly individualistic Maurice Prendergast, were in rebellion against the prettiness of Impressionist landscape painting which, Lawson, of course represented.

In 1912-1913, he was one of the founders of the National Association of Painters and Sculptors*.  This organization planned the 1913 Armory Show* that remains famous in art history for being a large-scale introduction of modernist art to the American public.  In 1917, he was elected a Full Member of the National Academy of Design*.

In his later years, he moved frequently because he was troubled with personal, financial and health problems.  He taught briefly in Hartford, Connecticut and was distraught because he could earn so little money.  In 1939, near Miami, Florida, he died from drowning, which some thought suicide.  From 1931, he had visited Florida regularly to seek help for his chronic arthritis and in 1934 had moved there.

Sources:
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art
Harold Spencer, (Intro), Connecticut and American Impressionism
M.D. Silverbrooke, Art Historian and Collector, West Vancouver, Canada.  Email to Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, AskART.

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see AskART.com Glossary http://www.askart.com/AskART/lists/Art_Definition.aspx




This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Ernest Lawson was born in 1873 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  He moved to Kansas City, Missouri where his father practiced medicine. He enrolled in classes at the Kansas City Art League School, but without sufficient money for art studies, he accompanied his father the following year to Mexico City where he found work as a draughtsman for an engineering company. By 1890, Lawson moved to New York City and commenced studies at the Art Students League with J. Alden Weir and John H. Twachtman, who had an immense impact on the young artist's work. He later worked in Paris where, like some of The Eight, he learned from the French Impressionists.

Devoted to landscape painting, Lawson moved to Washington Heights in Manhattan in 1898 where no buildings obstructed the view of the Hudson River, which he loved to depict. He painted his most important canvases during his eight years in Washington Heights.

Lawson was convinced that freedom of expression was necessary if art were to survive in America. The strength of his conviction led him to become one of the Eight and to give active support to the famous New York Armory Show of 1913. This exhibition introduced many Americans to the advanced trends in European and American painting, and it received wide and critical attention. The date has become historic in the annals of twentieth century art.

Lawson suffered financial difficulties late in his career despite his renowned reputation. In 1936, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis which allowed him to paint only intermittently, Lawson settled in Coral Gables, Florida. In 1939, Lawson's dead body was found on the beach. It is unclear whether he suffered a heart attack, committed suicide, or was the victim of an attack on the beach on the morning of December 18th.

Written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.

Sources:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Miniatures: The Eight
From the internet, AskART.com


Biography from Owen Gallery:
Ernest Lawson was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1873. He moved to Kansas City, Missouri in 1888 where his father was practicing medicine. Lawson enrolled in classes at the Kansas City Art League School, but without sufficient money for art studies, he accompanied his father the following year to Mexico City, where he found work as a draughtsman for an engineering company.

By 1890, Lawson moved to New York and commenced studies at the Art Students League under John Henry Twachtman, who had an immense impact on the young artist's work.

Devoted to landscape painting, Lawson moved to Washington Heights in Manhattan in 1898 where no buildings obstructed the view of the Hudson River, which he loved to depict. Lawson painted his most important canvases during his eight years in Washington Heights.

In 1908, Lawson participated in the landmark exhibition of The Eight at the MacBeth Galleries in New York, despite his stylistic separation from the Ashcan aesthetic of Robert Henri and his circle. Lawson also participated in such monumental exhibitions as the 1913 Armory Show and the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition.

Lawson suffered financial difficulties late in his career despite his renowned reputation. In 1936, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis which allowed him to paint only intermittently, Lawson settled in Coral Gables Florida. In 1939, Lawson's dead body was found on the beach. It is unclear whether he suffered a heart attack, committed suicide, or was the victim of an attack on the beach on the morning of December 18th.

Biography from William A. Karges Fine Art - Beverly Hills:
Ernest Lawson was a part of a group of New York artists known as “The Eight.” Working in a near-pure Impressionist style, Lawson created works that often featured the Urban landscape of New York.

Lawson was born in Kansas City and studied at the Art Students League in New York City. Following brief study in Paris, Lawson stayed close to his home near Washington Heights. Quite in contrast to the other members of the eight, who were all considered social realists, Lawson was the only member who exhibited pure landscapes.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
Ernest Lawson was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1873.(1)  The son of Dr. Archibald Lawson and the former Anna E. Mitchell, he was the second child of five and the only one to survive.  In 1883, Dr. Lawson left Canada with his wife to practice medicine in Kansas City, Missouri, and their son stayed with relatives in Kingston, Ontario.  In 1888, he joined his parents in Kansas City, where he enrolled in classes at the Kansas City Art League School.  There he studied with Ella Holman, whom he would later marry.  Lawson realized that there were not many opportunities for artists in Kansas City, and in 1890, he moved with his father to Mexico City.  He worked as a draughtsman for an English engineering company, and studied in the evenings at the San Carlos Art School.

By 1890, he had saved enough money to move to New York, and he began studies at the Art Students League under John Henry Twachtman.  Lawson developed his impressionist style while studying under Twachtman and J. Alden Weir at their school in Cos Cob, Connecticut.  He became devoted to landscape painting, and this interest remained unchanged throughout his professional life.  In 1893, he traveled to France, where he studied in Paris at the Académie Julian under Jean-Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant.  He shared a studio with the novelist Somerset Maugham, who used him as the basis for the character Frederick Lawson in Of Human Bondage.  During his stay in France, Lawson painted at Moret-sur-Loing, near the Fontainbleau forest, where he met Alfred Sisley, who along with Twachtman was the main influence on his work.

Lawson returned to the United States and married Holman in 1894.  They settled for a time in Paris, but returned to America.  Lawson accepted a teaching position in Columbus, Georgia, and at the same time, Ella was offered a similar post in Asheville, North Carolina.(2)  In 1898, Lawson and his family moved to Washington Heights in Manhattan, and by the turn of the century, his work centered almost exclusively on views of this neighborhood.  At the time, the area was not settled too densely, and a number of naturally forested areas were intermixed by small farms.  In 1904, he won his first award, a silver medal from the St. Louis Universal Exposition. He and his family moved to Greenwich Village in 1906, and once there Lawson met William Glackens.  Through this important and outgoing artist, Lawson became associated with a group of American artists in New York City, including Arthur B. Davies, Maurice Prendergast, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, Robert Henri, John Sloan, and George Luks.  This group, who called themselves “The Eight,” held a well-publicized exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York in February 1908. They were men of widely different tendencies, and five of the eight artists were known best for their gritty urban scenes.  However, common opposition to academicism, as well as an interest in the daily lives of the middle and lower classes bound all eight artists and the environment in which they lived.

In 1910, Lawson was a featured artist and an organizer of the exhibition of Independent Artists, which included most of the members of the Eight; it was the first show in American to have no jury or prizes.  He served on the Committee of Foreign Exhibitions for the 1913 Armory Show, and he participated in the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition.(3)  In 1916, Lawson won a prize from the Corcoran Gallery that allowed him to take his family abroad.  He painted in Segovia and Toledo, and the bright Spanish light caused his palette to become lighter.  When he returned in 1917, he was elected to full membership in the National Academy.

Despite winning several prizes in 1920 and 1921, Lawson did not meet with financial success.  His financial woes and personal problems caused him to become an alcoholic.  In the 1920s, he continued to paint in and around New York and New Jersey, and in 1926 he joined the faculty of the Kansas City Art Institute.  In 1927, he took a teaching assignment at the Broadmoor Art Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  After returning to New York for a brief period, he accepted a friend’s offer to visit Coral Gables, Florida.  In the 1930s, he divided his time between New York, Canada, and Florida, and in 1936, he moved permanently to Coral Gables.

His final years were difficult, due to his ill health from rheumatoid arthritis, financial troubles, and disillusionment with his art profession.  In 1939, Lawson's dead body was found on the beach.  The cause of his death is unknown, but a likely explanation is that he was robbed while on the beach and suffered a fatal heart attack as a result.(4) 

A committed landscapist, Lawson always began a work out of doors in the en plein air method.(5)  He did not create preliminary drawings, but instead painted directly on canvas.  Lawson’s work includes pure landscapes, foreign scenes, urban views and rural village scenes.  His extremely rich and varied palette has been described as having a “crushed jewel” effect.  Like the Impressionists, Lawson used intensely contrasting colors and rough impasto textures in his work, and he had a particular interest in the effect of light on the surface of the landscape.  After Lawson became associated with the artists of The Eight, his work became progressively less picturesque.(6)  Lawson created many winter landscapes during the first two decades of the 20th century, and in them the impasto and brushstrokes take on their own structural significance.

Footnotes:
1. Biographical information taken from William H. Gerdts, Pride in Place: Landscapes by The Eight in Southern Collections (Albany, GA: Albany Museum of Art, 1999); Adeline Lee Karpiscak, Ernest Lawson 1873-1939 (Tucson: University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1979); and Elizabeth Milroy, Painters of a New Century: The Eight and American Art (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Art Museum, 1991).
2. Following his return to the United States from France, Lawson accepted a teaching position in Columbus, Georgia in 1896, but found soon that he had no real skills at teaching and did not enjoy painting portraits instead of landscapes.  He quickly left the teaching position.  This decision caused a rift in his marriage and as a result, his wife left him and moved to Asheville, North Carolina to accept a new teaching position there.  This was the first of a number of long separations in their marriage. Lawson relocated to Toronto.
3. Lawson displayed three paintings in the Armory Show, including Harlem River-Winter, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased two years later as their first acquisition of Lawson’s work.
4. Dennis Anderson, in the ACA catalogue of the 1976 retrospective writes, “For the first time evidence has come to light that there were at this time, a series of robberies and assaults made upon Miami beachgoers by bands of young hooligans.  It is suspected, because of police and medical evidence, that Ernest Lawson was one of their victims, and subsequently died of a heart attack.  Quoted Karpiscak, 17.
5. According to Karpiscak, he learned this method during his early studies with Ella Holman.
6. Donald Keyes, American Impressionism in Georgia Collections (Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, 1993), 68.
Submitted by the Staff of the Columbus Museum

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


Ernest Lawson is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
New York Armory Show of 1913
Cornish Colony
Impressionists Pre 1940
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915
Paris Pre 1900



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