Buffalo and Sheldrake, New York, have been integral to the life and work of Edwin Dickinson: it was in Buffalo that he first started to draw, first studied painting and where he first taught painting. It was Buffalo friends who were his first and most important patrons and the geography of the area left a lasting impression on his work.
Edwin was just six years old on Christmas Eve of 1897 when his family moved to Buffalo from Seneca Falls where he was born, Seneca Falls. His father, Reverend Edwin H. Dickinson, had been called from the First Presbyterian Church of Seneca Falls to Buffalo’s North Presbyterian Church. There Edwin attended the New York State Normal School of Practice and later at Lafayette High School. As a child Edwin loved to draw and Indians were a favorite subject. The joking comment on one was by his sister, Antoinette: “Anyone could see that you have great talent!”
In Edwin’s home, his father led daily morning prayers for all the household: parents, children, guests and Indian or immigrant girls who helped in the house. On Sundays, for church Edwin wore long, black stockings and a white collar with his serge suit and Sunday dinner followed. The manse was always busy with activities related to his father’s ministry. Parishioners came seeking comfort or advice and, occasionally, the family would be assembled to witness a marriage. Visiting clergymen and missionaries were often entertained, and one brought Edwin an ancient clay lamp from Persia.
When in 1906 the new large North Presbyterian Church on Deleware Avenue was built a window (now destroyed in a fire) was installed in memory of Emma Carter Dickinson, Edwin’s mother, who had died in 1903. The great organ in the new church was played by William Kaffenberger, father of his closest friend, Karl.
His Buffalo years appear to have given Edwin a deep aesthetic responsiveness to winter. Whenever he visited Buffalo during a snowfall, it was to him a noteworthy event always mentioned in his letters. Even if snow fell after an envelope had been sealed it would be noted on the outside: “snow,” “Snowing all night,” “Delaware Avenue all white.”
As a young man Edwin was enthralled by the on-going Arctic explorations. Edwin’s passion for arctic exploration calling himself an “armchair Arctic explorer “ he gathered a large library of exploration accounts and some became subjects of his paintings.
At his summer home in Sheldrake, New York, the shale cliffs bordering Lake Cayuga were embedded with fossils which fell to the stony beach. Edwin collected Fossils all his life and liked to carry a trilobite in his pocket, or set a brachiopod beside him while he drank his coffee. Gorges, fossils glens and waterfalls could appear in his paintings such as An Anniversary, of 1920-21. It was painted in Provincetown and local models and friends posed for all its figures. At the top of the canvas, and seemingly unrelated, appear a Sheldrake brook and a glen. Fossils that he’d kept were used as pieces of still lives, while glens and waterfalls appear in paintings where they have no apparent relationship to the rest of the subject matter. They seem to have been included only because of the artist’s deep attachment to them.
Another of Edwin’s very large paintings, also painted in Provincetown (1926-1928) was given an enigmatic title obscure as to meaning, The Fossil Hunters. There is in this picture a stream and a glen painted from memory and trilobites from the artist’s collection. Placed near the trilobites is a large brachiopod that is in his collection “through the courtesy” of Esther Sawyer Ewing, who was the first to see it embedded in the rock wall of a cliff in Eighteen Mile Creek where as children Bill Sawyer and his sister Esther had taken Edwin “fossil hunting.”
It was during the years of Edwin’s boyhood in Buffalo that he had been acquainted with both Esther Hoyt and Ansley Sawyer and their families, but it was not until later that he knew them well. Esther and he became friends when she was an art student in the Hawthorne Class in Provincetown. When in 1916 Edwin returned to Buffalo to take up his first teaching position, directing a sketch class at the Art School of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy at the Albright Art Gallery, where he himself had first studied art with Urquart Wilcox, Esther and Ansley were married, and it was then that his ardent friendship with them began. This sketch class after early meetings in the studio of the artist Evelyn Rumsey, was often held outdoors at various places in and near Buffalo: Virginia Place, Hamburg, Blackwell Canal, Fort Erie and Niagara Falls, as well as in the school in the Albright Art Gallery.
The close association with the Sawyers and their support, which contributed immeasurably to the advancement of his career, brought Edwin back to Buffalo again and again for nearly fifty years to visit, to paint, to exhibit and to teach. When he first visited them they were living at Saybrook Place and their children were still very young. In Provincetown in 1921 those children, William and Esther, then called Sonny and Sister, posed for Edwin’s first commissioned portrait. In Buffalo the following year he again painted Esther and a portrait of Josephine Hoyt Gilbert, the first of many paintings and drawings of members of the Sawyer family and their friends and associates.
Ansley Wilcox Sawyer was a prominent lawyer and a civic leader. Esther Hoyt Sawyer was a brilliant woman with a brisk energy, which she effectively used to further the cultural and civic concerns in which she was interested. She was especially involved in promoting artistic activities in her city, bringing artists and exhibitions to Buffalo.
Because she and Ansley had confidence in Edwin’s artistic ability, she never ceased thinking up and carrying out projects to promote his career. She arranged for exhibitions of his paintings and drawings in Buffalo. It was at her suggestion that Edwin was asked to teach at the Art Institute of Buffalo in 1939, where during one of the meetings of the class he made Demonstration Drawing before a group of more than sixty students.
Esther and Ansley were donors of Edwin’s paintings. In 1927, An Anniversary, which had been the center of a group of his paintings exhibited at the Albright Art Gallery, remained as their gift to the Gallery’s permanent collection, and Esther gave another large painting, Composition with Still Life to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1954 and in 1957 she gave Edwin’s painting Woodland Scene to Cornell University, in memory of her father, William Ballard Hoyt, who had been a graduate and a trustee there.
During the winters 1934 - 1935 and 1938 - 1939, Esther lent Edwin her large studio in which to work and enjoyed having him choose things from her house to paint. Velvet draperies from the Sawyer home billow out as though windblown in Edwin’s painting The Fossil Hunters. They were painted again in an unfinished portrait of Esther caller Fragment: Head and Drapery, and in the Woodland Scene the same drape hangs loosely over the shoulders of the central figure. A large ornate gold mirror and two early American china pitchers from Esther’s mother’s house, the Hoyt mansion, were used in Composition with Still Life.
Edwin and Esther, during long discussions about art, agreed that as professionals, artists are the persons best qualified to judge the quality of works of art, and to discover new talent. In 1936 when Esther was thinking of organizing an association that would offer expert advice of artists to art collectors she wrote Edwin with her characteristic verve:”…
This blooming idea got sky-rocketing in my head . . .It is apropos of that idea I discussed with you and about which you . . .wrote me a few years ago. . .I hope I am about to start an Art Collectors and Artists Cooperative Club.”
With Ansley Sawyer as legal advisor, a group of interested people joined Esther in forming the Art Collectors and Artists Association. A booklet describing the purposes and aims of the association was published and Edwin made a drawing for the cover.
Edwin was named Artist Advisor for the first year. Other members of the Artist Advisory Board were Carle Miles, John Sloan and Eugene Speicher. The Associations first exhibition was held in May, 1937 and among the works sold from that show were Sacre Coeur by Maurice Utrillo and Cotton Pickers by Jackson Pollock.
Later Pollack wrote that Cotton Pickers was the first one of his paintings ever to be sold.
While Edwin and his family were living in Buffalo, the “Sawyer-Dickinson” friendship spread to include their families, especially Esther’s sisters, the Gilberts, the Glennys, the Potters and all their children, theirs and his. Josephine and Lester Gilbert, Albertine and Bryant Glenny, Hilda and Roderick Potter and all the children, theirs and his. There were luncheons at Mrs. Hoyt’s house, a nineteenth century pillared mansion whose great columns, each a whole tree which had been dragged by Indians on sleds from the surrounding forest. There were concerts and plays and for Ansley and Edwin there was evening after evening of chess.
Although Edwin has lived in other places his roots were never severed and his ties never broken with Eastern and Central New York where he was born and grew up.
That region is still present in his thinking and his art.
Following our marriage in 1928 Edwin and I spent two winters in Sheldrake where he painted his beloved cliffs and winter landscapes. Recalling those years and our winters and many visits in Buffalo has given me pleasure. the deep pleasure of remembering warm friendships. Writing about those times is my tribute to the city, the region and above all to our friends.
Frances Foley Dickinson
Written for an Edwin Dickinson exhibition at Buffalo’s Burchfield Center. Edited by Helen Dickinson Baldwin.