Sullivan Goss
AN AMERICAN GALLERY
Celebrating 27 Years of 19th, 20th and 21st Century American Art
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DALE WILLIAM NICHOLS

(1904–1995)

American Rural Regionalist Painter

Sara Sheppard

A talented artist, Dale Williams Nichols worked in various mediums including watercolor, oils, and pen and ink. Nichols was a painter, designer, writer, and illustrator, and who rejected modernism for a more realist approach to art. He is best known for his recreations of farm life, often painting Nebraskan landscapes.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Dale William Nichols was born in 1904 in David City, Nebraska on his father’s grain farm. At the age of four, his mother discovered his talent for drawing, but did not encourage him to pursue it because of their family’s busy farm lifestyle. As he got older, his talent was also noticed by his teachers who encouraged him to pursue art (Pagano).

At the age of twenty, Nichols decided to work at his talent and moved to Chicago. In 1924 Nichols began studying at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. Although the date is unknown, he also studied with Carl Werntz (1874-1944) at the Art Institute of Chicago (Zellman). Werntz was the founder of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a landscape and allegorical subject painter. Nichols spent his time at school designing layouts for a calendar concern (Pagano). Nichols soon traveled to Vienna where he studied under Joseph Binder (1805-1863). Nichols would spend only seven months total in training at both the Art Institute of Chicago and in Vienna. His art education would not have as much influence over his art as his experiences growing up on his father’s farm. Nichols believed the best art came from the experiences of youth, and focused his art on the experiences of farm life.

Nichols remained in Chicago for fifteen years after he initially moved there, and was named the Carnegie Professor of Art at the University of Illinois in 1939. He was an advocate of fine art for commercial purposes, and went against the modernism trend that was occurring during the time. For that reason he was often scorned by art critics. He published his theories on art in his book, A Philosophy of Esthetics, in 1935 recording his belief that art was not composed of rules. He stood against modernism and the unnatural, and was more in favor of the natural rules that dictated art (“Dale Nichols”). He was awarded in 1939 by the Art Institute of Chicago for his painting, The Cold Wave. He won four hundred dollars with his Watson F. Blair purchase prize for the painting, and won over other artists who had conformed to the modernist trend. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought his painting The End of the Hunt in 1941 it was further confirmation to Nichols that he was successful even after ignoring the popular trend of his time.

In 1943, Nichols became the Art Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, following Grant Wood (1891-1942), who was best known for his painting American Gothic. Grant Wood was also one of three judges on the committee for the 1935 prize by the Art Institute of Chicago that Nichols won (Pagano). He would continue this position with the Encyclopedia Britannica until 1948. Nichols was also a member of the Chicago Tribune art staff at one point (Pagano).

In 1948, Nichols traveled to Tubac, Arizona and established the Artist’s School. He also restored some of the older buildings in the community. Nichols found the seclusion and simplicity of the desert community alluring and painted in a studio there for six years (“Santa Cruz County: Communities). Currently, the town is known as an artist’s colony, and Nichols is credited with its founding.

After the publishing of his second book, Figure Drawing, in 1957 Nichols spent his life traveling, and lived in Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Guatemala and Alaska (“Dale Nichols”). When Nichols traveled to Guatemala in the 1960s he was inspired by the Spanish and Mayan culture. The lushness of the landscape and the purity of the native people impressed him immensely, and he incorporated these interests into his art. (“Dale William Nichols”). He switched his style from oil to watercolors as well after his trip to Guatemala. Nichols also spent time as the art chairman of the Tucson Regional Plan, and was involved with the art department at the University of Arizona.

After the 1960s, not much is known about Nichols. However, it is known that he died on October 19, 1995 in Sedona, Arizona.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

“The old swimming hole; the warm dusty road we trod barefoot; the thrills of Halloween; snow battles and kid parties. It is perhaps as a subconscious yearning for a return to these happy days that I, after ten years of fighting for a place among the designers of Chicago, have turned to painting farms and the countryside.” – Dale William Nichols

Dale William Nichols was a Rural Regionalist painter who focused his art on the subject of farm life. He found his inspiration in his experiences as a youth growing up on a farm in America. In the 1930s, the search for a pure form of American art was growing, and the amount of public interest in the American art world grew tremendously (American Scene). This was when Nichols entered the art world, at the boom of the American Scene movement. The American Scene movement consisted of Regionalist artists as well as Rural Regionalist artists. The Regionalists tended to focus on city life, however both groups focused on life in America. They also denounced modernism, and Nichols was strongly opposed to the modernist movement.

Nichols can best be described as a Rural Regionalist. The University of Minnesota book, The American Scene, acknowledges, “The Rural Regionalists wished to save an American type that was quickly passing from the scene, the rustic American farmer. They also spent a great deal of their time documenting the rural or farm landscape and the small town resident” (10). The majority of Nichols’ art reflected this need to preserve the American farmer through his depiction of rural life. His farm scenes often depicted the isolation of farm life, and the excitement that rare social occasions brought to the farm (“Dale Nichols 1904-1995”). Nichols stated, “Before the advent of World War I, the radio and the hard road, country people, particularly those of the Middle West, lived more of less isolated lives. Therefore, company for supper was an exciting event, usually held on Sunday evenings. For the children these evenings meant hilarious fun; the building of chair and blanket houses; of games like hide-and-go-seek. For the grown-ups these were evenings of feasting upon fried chicken and gossip, both of which were highly spiced” (Pagano). This feeling of farm life, isolation, and American values could be found in all of Nichols’ art. Company for Supper was painted in 1948, and portrayed the isolated farm anticipating the excitement that came from company. Stylistically, the red barn and farmhouse were used throughout Nichols’ paintings, with the actual figures in the composition barely visible. The large, booming landscapes dominated Nichols’ art, and are the subject of the composition.

Nichols stated, “I feel that an artist paints best what he has been exposed to during his youth. I think my memory paintings of my home state may be my only creations that I sign with full confidence” (“Dale Nichols”). The Nebraska landscapes that Nichols painted in watercolor came from his memories as a child on his father’s farm. He worked in watercolor, oils, and pen and ink; Nichols was adept at all mediums. He also sketched his art in nature, but took it back to the studio to finish, placing his own psychology into the composition (Zellman).

Nichols used numerology, magic squares and psychic symbols in the majority of his work (Zellman). Nichols refused to paint any other way but his own style, regardless of what critics said. His art was shown in the New York World Fair in 1939, confirming his status as one of the great Midwest and Regionalist painters.

Nichols’ art from Alaska, Arizona and Guatemala are similar to his farm landscapes; the landscape dominates the composition in both. Nichols painted desert scenes, native people and the untouched landscapes of these locations. The simplicity behind the composition and the minimal use of human figures engages the viewer into the scene. Nichols often worked in watercolors, bringing a softness to his art. His art was celebrated for its American ideals and portrayal of rural American life as well as the aesthetic beauty found in it. Nichols had a successful art career, exhibiting in over eighty regional and national shows. When stated that Dale Nichols put Nebraska on the map he replied, “Dale Nichols did not put Nebraska on the map; Nebraska put Dale Nichols on the map” (“Dale Nichols”).

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1904 Born in David City, Nebraska
  • 1908 His mother notices his talent at drawing
  • 1924 Studies at Chicago Academy of Fine Arts
  • 1930s-1940s Creates artwork for direct-mail industrial advertising
  • 1935 A Philosophy of Esthetics is published, written by Nichols
  • 1939 Serves as Carnegie Professor of Art at the University of Illinois
  • 1940 The American Artist Group releases a set of Christmas Cards with his art included
  • 1940 Illustrates A World History
  • 1941 Illustrates Two Years Before the Mast, written by Richard Henry Dana
  • 1941 Metropolitan Museum of Art buys “End of the Hunt”
  • 1941 Designs The National Tuberculosis Association’s Christmas seal
  • 1942-1948 Works as Art Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica
  • 1943-1945 Works as art chairman of the Tucson Regional Plan
  • 1948 Establishes the Artist School in Tubac, Arizona
  • 1948 Restores some of the old buildings in the community of Tubac, Arizona
  • 1950s Lives in Tucson, Arizona
  • 1957 Figure Drawing is published, written by Nichols
  • 1960s Moves to Guatemala and switches from oils to watercolors
  • 1995 Dies in Sedona, Arizona
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • Butler Institute of American Art, OH
  • Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA
  • Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, MN
  • Georgia Museum of Art
  • Great Plains Art Museum, NE
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
  • Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN
  • Museum of Nebraska Art
  • Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, NE
  • The Arkansas Art Center
  • The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, MO
  • Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1934 Century of Progress, Chicago, IL
  • 1935 Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • 1936 Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • 1936 Dallas Museum of Fine Art, TX
  • 1936 International Building, Rockefeller Center, NY
  • 1937 Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA
  • 1938 Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • 1938 Macbeth Galleries, NY
  • 1938 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • 1939 New York World Fair, NY
  • 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, San Francisco, CA
  • 1939 Art Institute of Chicago, IL
  • 1939 Joint show of the American Water-color Society and the New York Water-color Club, NY
  • 1941 Associated American Artists Gallery, NY
  • 1941 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
  • 1943 Denver Art Museum, CO
  • 1946 Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA
  • 1986 Museum of Nebraska Art
  • 1999 Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, WI
  • 2002 Doggett Street Studio, Newstead, Brisbane, Queensland
  • 2005 Georgia Museum of Art
  • 2008 Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art, NE
  • VI. MEMBERSHIPS

  • American Artists Professional League
  • Brownsville Art League
  • Chicago Guild Free Lance Artists
  • Grand Central Galleries
  • Society of Typographic Artists
  • Tucson Archaeological Society
  • VII. AWARDS

  • 1935 Art Institute of Chicago, Hearst Award for “The End of the Hunt”
  • 1939 Art Institute of Chicago, Watson F. Blair purchase prize for “The Cold Wave”
  • VIII. Bibliography

    1. 1.American Scene: Urban and Rural Regionalists of the 30s and 40s. Minneapolis: Minnesota University, University Gallery, 1976.
    2. 2."Dale Nichols." MONA. Museum of Nebraska Art. 16 Apr. 2008 .
    3. 3."Dale Nichols 1904-1995." Keith Sheridan Fine Prints. 18 June 2008 .
    4. 4."Dale William Nichols." AskArt. 16 May 2008 .
    5. 5.Pagano, Grace. "Dale Nichols." Contemporary American Painting; the Encyclopedia Britannica Collection.
    6. 6."Santa Cruz County: Communities." Arizona. 18 June 2008 .
    7. 7. Zellman, Michael David. American Art Analog. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

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