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Arthur Wesley Dow


A brief history of the life, teachings

and influences of

painter ● printmaker ● photographer ● writer ● arts educator

“Art is the most valued thing in the is the expression of the highest form of human energy, the creative power nearest to the divine. The power is within - the question is how to reach it.”

          Arthur Wesley Dow was born on April 6, 1857 and educated in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He began studying art in 1880 and contributed illustrations for the newspaper, Antiquarian Papers. His background in art before was only some sketches of historical buildings in his hometown. He met his future wife, Minnie Pearson, in 1881 while working as an apprentice in the Boston studio. Dow began teaching art in 1882 to make a living while studying art.

          In 1887, when Dow was 27 years old, he made a trip to Paris to study at the Academie Julian and the Ecole National des Arts Decoratiff. There he met Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard in the artists’ colony in Brittany in Pont-Aven. He was known for his landscape paintings and won an honorable mention at the Universal Exposition in 1889 for his landscape, Au Soir.  He returned to Ipswich during that same year and helped found the Ipswich Historical Society in 1890. Throughout the 1890’s Dow was also a serious amateur photographer and preferred using blue tones in his photographs. Dow believed that photography could be art. Raynor (1993) described Dow as “one of those artists for whom color was an addiction and he made it even more obvious by working so small” when referring to his prints and their hues (pp.A10).

          A turning point for Dow was in 1891 when he discovered and began studying the aesthetic precepts of Japanese ukiyo-e, (“floating world”), prints after meeting Ernest Fenollosa. During that time, Fenollosa was a curator for Japanese art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and it was there he displayed Dow’s woodcuts. Dow became Fenollosa’s assistant curator there in 1893. Stankiewicz (2001) states they worked to “develop instructional activities that would help self-expression unfold and enable student artists “to receive the transcendent gift of synthesis” (p.91). Dow began teaching at the Pratt Institute in 1895 and continued teaching until 1903. During his time at the Pratt Institute, Dow had published his book Composition in 1899 which provided a series of exercises. During 1897-1903, he also taught at the Art Students League of New York. Walkup (2001) stated that Dow was also a contributing author for early issues in SchoolArts in 1902.

          During a trip in India in 1904, he observed the craft of wood block printing and decided to introduce it into art courses for children and adults. In his book Composition, Dow (1899) outlines the method in five steps and suggests different forms of printing on items such as paper and cloth. From 1904-1922 Dow taught art and served as the director of the fine arts department at Columbia University. Dow continued to work and create art until his death in New York on December 13, 1922.

Arthur Wesley Dow 1913

Photograph by: James S. Radcliffe

Image Source: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Arthur Wesley Dow in studio, ca. 1900

Image Source: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution


          Arthur Wesley Dow was the first educator/artist to identify and classify the elements by developing a synthetic structural approach system call Notan. Notan, as Gude (2004) states is "a Japanese word denoting the balance between flat planes of light and dark or Itten's references to the philosophy of traditional Chinese painting" (p.7).     

          Dow published Composition in 1899 and Stankiewicz (2001) stated that Dow’s idea was that composition was where individuality entered design instruction.  Dow (1899) stated that “Composition was chosen as a title because that word expresses the idea upon which the method here presented is founded- the “putting together” of lines, masses and colors to make a harmony” (p.3). Dow also stated that the principal of fine arts are architecture, sculpture, painting, music and poetry. The first three are called Space arts which he describes has three structural elements with which harmonies may be built up. Those three are line, notan and color and Dow (1899) described these as “the elements by which the whole visible world is apprehended, - may or may not be used as the language of art” (p.89). In ways of creating harmony, Dow (1899) outlined the five most sufficient principles of composition being, opposition, transition, subordination, repetition and symmetry.

          His synthetic methods were a direct result from his travels and studies of Japanese woodcut prints and his influence of Ernest Fenollosa. Dow focused on line, dark and light, color and beauty of arrangement rather than imitation of material reality. He moved away from copying nature of the academic system of imitative art to original art. His system was a disciplined approach and was a method intended for teaching artists and art teachers only. Dow believed it was possible for even beginners to create beauty in original works and wanted it to be available to all people. His system was introduced at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York which ultimately replaced the imitative representational academy method used for years before.

Collag of pages from Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow

Image Source: Karey Mortimer

“Anything in art is possible when freedom is given to the divine gift APPRECIATION."

(Dow, 1899, p.128)


          Arthur Wesley Dow’s system was a result from his studies of other cultures: the ancient arts of the Egyptians, Aztecs and Japanese and his meeting with Ernest F. Fenollosa. Fenollosa taught him the Japanese language and oriental brushwork. He was also influenced by the work of Hokusai—his ukiyo-e woodcuts—and began creating woodblock prints that incorporated both Eastern and Western aesthetics.

Dow’s method and theory contributions to art education in the early twentieth-century impacted American schools for over 40 years and still today. His revolutionary spirit also impacted many well-known artists including Alvin Langdon Coburn and Georgia O’Keeffe.  Alvin Langdon Coburn was one of his photographer students at the Ipswich Summer School of Art and later achieved fame. In 1917 Coburn’s series of abstract photographs of crystals is one of his notable works.

          Weideman (2000) states that in the early life of Georgia O’Keeffe, she focused on realism and could imitate other artists work easily but found it did not interest her so she stopped painting. Through Dow’s radical teaching approach in 1912 she found her way and in an interview in Her Life and Art (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum) she has said of Dow, “His idea was, to put it simply, to fill a space in a beautiful way, which was a new idea to me”. O’Keeffe is one of the first American artists to practice pure abstraction. She has since been recognized as the “Mother of American Modernism”.

          Having been taught more of a realism approach to creating art and wanting to explore another alternative like O’Keeffe, I found it refreshing to learn that through Dow’s teachings in terms of design and pattern, and influence that he essentially pathed the way for abstract art. It is obvious to me that he embodied the “art spirit” not only in his career but in his everyday life. His teaching methods and spirit have influenced me greatly in considering my own personal art as well as my approaches to art education.

Georgia O'Keeffe

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Georgia O'Keeffe

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