The Fossil Hunters

Oil on canvas
97 x 73 in. (246.4 x 185.4 cm)
Signed, dated upper right: "E W Dickinson 1926-8"inscribed on blue drapery: "F2"inscribed on billowing curtain above center figure: "Sheldrake""BD"[Burgess Dickinson], scratched in lightly Earl Stroh in Buffalo speaking of t
Photo: Geoffrey Clements


Painted November 16, 1926 to October 21, 1928 in 192 sittings.

1925: Bought canvas for 6 x 8, September 12. ED & Bill Boogar stretched the 6 x 8 , September 16. (journal)

1926, November 1 "planning 6 x 8", 15, preparing palette etc., 16 "Am began 6 x 8", 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, 24, 25, 10, 30, December 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23. (journal).

1927: January 13, 18, 19, 24, 25, 26, February 7 "began on Barbara", 8 (Barbara), 9 (Barbara), 10, (Barbara), 11, (Barbara), 12 (Barbara), 14 (Barbara), 15 (Barbara), 16 (Barbara), 17 (Barbara), 18 (Barbara), 21 (Barbara), 22 (Barbara), 23, 24, 28 (Barbara), (50 sittings), March 1 (Barbara), 2 (Barbara), 3 (Barbara), 4 (Barbara), 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 28, 29, April 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19 "(out Barbara)", 26 "began 2nd figure of Barbara", 27, (Barby), 28 (Barby), 29 (Barby), May 4 (Barby), 5, (Barby), 6 (Barby), 9 (Barby), 10 (Barby), 11 (Barby), 12 (Barby), 16 (Barby), 17 (Barby), 18 (Barby), 19 (Barby), 25, 26, 27, 28, 31 (Barby), June 1 (Barby), 2 (Barby), 3, (13 ED given a white arctic owl), 14 "began owl,"15, 16 [100 sittings], 21, July 12 (arranging drapery), 13 (arranging drapery), 14, 15 "working on drapery", 16, 20, 21, 22, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, August 2 (painted out owl), 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, September 8, 9, 10, 11 "looking at work", 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, October 6, 7, 8, 14, 15, 22, 29 (133 sittings, referred to as "F2"). (journal).

1928: April 17 "first sitting on Fossil Hunters since F2 - 134 [sittings]", 18, 19, 20, May 17 "Arranging for work on 6 x 8.", 18 "arranging work", 19 "painted 137 [sittings] grindstone.", 20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 26, 28,29, 31, June 1, 2, 6, 8, 9, 16 "began Tibi.", 19 (Tibi), 20 (Tibi), 21 (Tibi), July 6 "arranging work", 7 "began 4th figure", 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17 "arranged drapery", 18 "arranging drapery", 20 "Repainted F2 of Oct. 29th", 21, 23, 24, 25, 26, July 31 "took out nude", August 4 "Adelite & rearranging drapery", 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17 "fini FH." 20, September 2 "fini 72/96", (192 sittings), (all journal). (journal). [ "Adelite" is a word evidently made up by ED, indicating that in a given sitting he both deleted and added to features of the painting.

To FF[D], July 20 1928: ". . . painting in the 72 over the old, better and plainer. Source of satisfaction to me, and a rare experience, that as this canvas approaches the finish, interest increases; on previous things of size, their villanies grew and interest waned as they seemed not worth finishing in the 'bad manner'." To EHS, August 30, 1929, At the Pennsylvania Academy the painting "was again hung sideways which disgusted me . . . I had it changed by wire [telegram] before opening but not before the press view."To EHS, May 13, 1929, the mis-hanging won't "occur again acc't a sign 'top' on reverse." The curtains in the Fossil Hunters are light cold green - back girl a blue velvet waist [blouse] - otherwise largely gray."To EHS, November 16, 1929, "The Fossil Hunters is going to The Houston Tex. museum in Jan. for 3 weeks. This sensation is I fervently hope now dyinng out. This unwelcome notice has been absolutely broadcast." To EHS, January 21, 1931, asking if she could store the painting in her studio.

1935, April 18, ED it varnished and sent to Albright Art Gallery, where it hung with Woodland Scene (journal).

COH, p. 173: "I painted one called 'the Fossil Hunters.'. . . It was a painting about fossils."

Contents of The Fossil Hunters: The painting "opens" by drapes pulled back from right and left, revealing the rocks of a glen. Those rocks continue (with interruptions) down the right side of the paiting. Next is the recumbent figure, seen head first, of Barbara Brown, a close friend. Very near her head is the head of John Cordes, a model.. The long haired figure at the lower right was posed for by ED's sister, Tibi. The figure of Cordes is striking. His aged face is turned to his right; below it his right arm projects to his hand holding a twig. On his left side he is wearing his coat over his shoulder so his left hand emerges from beneath to rest on his lap, and the empty left sleeve makes a distinct circle. His legs are covered in a complicated arrangement of drapery, from below which protrude his shoes, nearly at the bottom of the painting. In the bottom left corner is a grindstone, set in a wood frame, and John Cordes holds a thin stick which stops just short of touching the grindstone. Below his right hand a thicker stick lies across some fossils, and its upper end points to a photograph of a fossil seen between Cordes' right arm and left hand. To the left of the right hand, the sleeve opening is shaped into a circle accentuating the emptiness of the sleeve. A round setting is made to "frame" both Cordes' right hand and a plaster cast of the face of Beethoven. This cast was made by ED from a life mask which had been given to him. Another fossil is in the space just to the right of Barbara Brown. On the white part nearest the right side are two pegs, evidently well pounded in and their shadows are carefully rendered.

Barbara Brown Malicoat interview: 1976: When ED asked her to pose she believes the center figure was done, and he wanted another. He and she went to a dressmaker to get just the right blouse for her. "It was a pale blue velveteen blouse, with a square neck, short sleeves and this silver tape around the neck and sleeves." She posed lying on a blanket on the floor and he asked her to let her hair loose and he arranged it in various ways. In two weeks or so she supposed he would be finished with her but found he had scraped out her figure, and planned something different for her. "This happened several times that winter. I was in different places on the canvas and in different positions. "From catalogue of Edwin Dickinson retrospective catalogue, 1976, unpaginated.

Journal, September summary 1957, "Fossil Hunters restoration undertaken by Caroline Keck. $1000 to $1200 & to be pd for wen it is sold." To HDB from ED at Sheldrake, December 15, 1957. The Fossil Hunters was damaged in shipment to Cornell by the packers, two nails driven through it, and the damage repaired by Mr. Pomerantz [?].

ED to Robert Graham, Jr.; on his a paper on ED while a student at Yale: "The two and principal models lay on the studio floor in angular perspective below the eye. Though the old man was painted first and the young woman second, her figure in its placement appears the odder of the two because she was not actually behind and beyond him but was laying [sic] in the place he had left vacant - which place was quite near the foot of the easel for the reason that the studio was not a deep one. Everything contradictory or awkward in the result I paid no attention to because I considered that it didn't matter. The 'death's head' was a plaster cast of the Leipzig life-mask of L. van Beethoven given me by the painter Issac Caliga, a torchbearer at Wagner's funeral. The small blue fossil in the foreground was from a beautiful pygidium of a trilobite which I presently have. . . . The 3rd figure at the right was posed for by my sister." [ Note: In Provincetown, the Beethoven life mask was several times reproduced in plaster by ED and friend Philip Malicoat. One cast is owned by his grandson David G. Baldwin.]

1965: ED07/10/2000d note written in a Whitney catalogue,"from the left edge the light emanates from the left; from the right the opposite.


Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Exhibition History

1929 NAD: (awarded 2nd Altman Figure Prize)
1938 Passedoit Gallery: Paintings by Edwin W. Dickinson
1939 Rochester Memorial Art Gallery: Paintings by Edwin Dickinson
1940 Wellesley College: Exhibition of Paintings by Edwin W. Dickinson
1952 MoMA: 15 Americans
195758 Cornell University: Edwin Dickinson, Visiting Artist: An Exhibition of Paintings, 1912-1956
1959 Boston University Art Gallery: Edwin Dickinson, Retrospective Exhibition
1960 Whitney: Recent Acquisitions
1961 James Graham & Sons: Edwin Dickinson, Retrospective
1963b Whitney: 60 Years of American Art
1963a Whitney: 26 American Artists
1965 Whitney: Edwin Dickinson. Major retrospective
1966 Whitney: Art of the United States
1975 Whitney: The Whitney Studio Club and American Art 1900-1932
1977 Whitney: American Art 1920-1945. A Permanent Collection Exhibition
197778 Burchfield Center, Buffalo: Tribute Exhibition: Edwin Dickinson
1978 Whitney: American Art 1950 to the Present
1979 American Academy & National Institute: Memorial Exhibition: Edwin Dickinson, Charles Eames, Eugene Francis Savage, Edward Durell Stone, Stow Wengenroth
1979 Whitney: Tradition and Modernism in American Art 1900-1930
1980 Whitney: The Figurative Tradition and the Whitney Museum of American Art
1986 CDS Gallery: Artists Choose Artists, IV
1986 Hirschl & Adler Modern: Edwin Dickinson: The Figure