Though Arthur Wesley Dow is little remembered today, the crafts movement he founded and influenced was at the turn of the twentieth century a powerful force in American art, and Dow's ideas still resonate in any discussion of the aesthetics of the period. As an instructor at Pratt, the New York Art Students League and the Columbia University Teachers College, he was able to disseminate his ideas among his students, many of whom went on to become artists in their own right. Among them were such luminaries as Georgia O'Keefe and Max Weber.
While Dow was born in New England and trained as an artist at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris, the real source of his inspiration came from Japan. During the late nineteenth century, many European artists such as Whistler and Van Gogh were profoundly influenced by the artworks, particularly the ukiyo-e woodblock prints, that had begun to appear after Japan had finally been opened to the West in 1853. Japonisme became something of a vogue and was even used for decorative purposes. Dow's interest, however, ran far deeper. After having encountered the work of the printmaker Hokusai he wrote:
"It is now plain to me that Whistler and Pennell whom I have admired as great originals are only copying the Japanese. One evening with Hokusai gave me more light on composition and decorative effect than years of study of pictures."
Dow then befriended Ernest Fenollosa, at the time curator of the Boston Museum's Japanese collection, and began an exhaustive study of printmaking techniques. So successful was he in mastering the ukiyo-e process with the assistance of Sylvester Koehler, the museum's print curator, that in 1895 Dow's prints of New England scenes were given a one-man exhibition organized by Fenollosa. But Dow's achievement was more than a technical success. He had recognized in the ukiyo-e prints he had viewed the underlying Japanese principle of notan, the massing of blocks of light and shadow, and had been able to incorporate it into his own style and to promote this aesthetic in the creation of modernist works.
Dow was also a talented photographer and member of the Boston Camera Club. He applied to his photographic work the same concept of notan that he had used in his printmaking. As such, he found himself firmly in the camp of the Pictorialist movement. Not only did he instruct such prominent photographers as Gertrude Käsebier, Barbara Morgan and Alvin Langdon Coburn, he also hired Clarence White to teach photography at the Teachers College.
Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts and Crafts was written to accompany an exhibit given by the American Federation of Arts in 1999. It consists of two short essays and a number of excellent reproductions not only of Dow's own works but those of his students as well. The first essay, written by Nancy E. Green, is the more useful and provides a broad outlook over the course of Dow's career. Unfortunately, Green is so determined to demonstrate the depth of Dow's influence on the course of American art that she spends more time discussing his students and followers than she does the artist himself. The second essay, written by Jessie Poesch, has a much narrower focus and limits itself to an overview of the ceramics inspired by Dow's teaching. In spite of its limitations, the book is a useful introduction to an important American artist.