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Leon Dabo's Pictures of Nothing

In the July 1913 edition of Art and Progress, a painter and writer called L Birge Harrison discussed “the ‘mood’ in modern painting”. Artists, he said, have “learned that the veiled and half-seen things make a stronger appeal to the human imagination than the commonplace and obvious facts of nature”. Painters, thought Harrison, now sought “mood” and had found that even banal landscapes could be “transformed and glorified” when they were painted in the “mysterious half-lights between day and darkness”.

What Harrison was describing was tonalism, a style that showed the world leeched of colour as though receding into mist. If motifs deliquesced under washes of neutral, pearly colour then a dreamy emotionalism took shape instead. James McNeill Whistler was the best-known exponent but almost as celebrated at the time was an acolyte, Leon Dabo.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, Dabo (1864-1960) was both prolific and famous. Between 1904 and the start of the First World War he took part in more than 100 group exhibitions and mounted 22 solo shows too. Many of his poetic scenes – all aqueous brushstrokes and soft as a sigh – showed the Hudson Valley and the beaches of the US north-east coastline. For Americans of a certain bent they represented the essence of their native land, untouched by industrialisation, and they lapped them up.

Dabo himself was born in France with the family moving to Detroit in 1870 to escape the Franco- Prussian War. Dabo’s father Ignace was an  ecclesiastical muralist and in the 1880s Leon followed that line of work, moving to New York. There he met the stained-glass designer John La Farge, who was to become the young man’s mentor.

When Dabo decided to study in Paris it was La Farge who provided him with letters of introduction to the symbolist painter Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, who also stressed, frankly, the importance of following the decorative arts: “If you don’t you won’t eat and you will die.” After Paris Dabo moved to Munich, Italy and then London where he met and was greatly influenced by Whistler, who had trained with his father. Attaching himself to the older American meant, he later said, more than just lessons in art for art’s sake but “sweeping his studio, going out for vermilion and paying for a tube without being reimbursed”.

Dabo returned to the US in 1890 with a wide knowledge of European art, mastery of several languages and an English wife, Jennie, who put up with his philandering until the 1920s when she finally sent him on his way (their daughter cut him out of her life and their son died by suicide in 1910). Around the turn of the century Dabo moved from mural painting to oils – and landscapes in particular.

This painting, The Seashore (circa 1905), now in the Detroit Institute of Arts, shows him at his most Whistlerian and atmospheric. In it, Dabo adopts – as he often did – a bird’s-eye view. Nothing but tone differentiates the beach from the sea, while the people – more translucent wraiths than flesh and blood – have the same liminal quality and could be composed of water and air too. These figures, mere flicks of paint, seem unconcerned by the huge wave breaking creamily in front of them. In the spirit of the painting it would enfold rather than endanger them.

It is the sort of painting that would prompt the critic of the New York Times to define Dabo’s work as distinctively American and the painter as one of “those dreamers of fine dreams who abstract from the concrete facts of everyday life somewhat of its poetry, something of its ineffable beauty and elusive mystery”.

There was, in fact, nothing exclusively American about this trait; Philip Wilson Steer was doing something not dissimilar at Walberswick in Suffolk. Where Dabo was different was in taking his paintings closer to abstraction, and to evanescence. He knew too how to use oil paint seductively, in long liquid drags. The influence of Japanese art, particularly the woodcuts of the Ukiyo-e artists of the “floating world”, is tacitly acknowledged in the monogram in the shape of a Japanese seal that spells out his name.

William Hazlitt once dismissed JMW Turner’s atmospheric paintings as “pictures of nothing, and very like” and when Dabo’s pictures are seen together the same could be said of him too. Individually, however, The Seashore and numerous others like it show how faithfully he strove to fulfil La Farge’s dictum that a painting should be “more than a mere representation of external appearances”. If the beach scene started off as real, he turned it into something ethereal.

Dabo’s success led to his involvement with a variety of forward-thinking artists’ groups and he became one of the organisers of the fabled 1913 Armory Show which introduced the European avant-garde – including Marcel Duchamp – to American audiences. This altruism was in evidence too when America joined the First World War in 1917: Dabo, although in his fifties by then, abandoned his career and signed up. His linguistic facility led to a commission in the Corps of Interpreters and later an appointment to the American Mission to Investigate German Atrocities. There were rumours too of espionage activities and missions to Germany for President Woodrow Wilson. He was later asked to paint five landscapes showing key sites of US involvement on the Western Front.

On his return to America, Dabo never again painted with the same fecundity as his pre-war years. “I couldn’t touch a picture now,” he told one journalist, “not after what I have seen of the horrors of war. It is not a time for oils and palette and easel. Those horrors must be dimmer in my mind more than they are now before I can paint again.” He had though been led to a new appreciation of women, having seen how they aided the war effort in Europe and “their amazing desire to give of themselves generously, holding nothing back, of the need of the hour”. He would go on to deliver a series of lectures on art to women’s clubs around the country.

Dabo was back in France when the Second World War broke out. He had moved there in 1937 and although he helped the likes of Fernand Léger and Walter Sickert get their paintings out of the country before the Germans arrived he found himself trapped in Paris with his second wife, Stephanie Ofenthal – who was Jewish – and 300 of his own pictures. Without exit visas, he eventually managed to extricate all of them, crossing over the border to Spain, then Portugal before finally making it back to New York.

Dabo would carry on painting – both landscapes and floral still-lifes – although the lyricism of his early-century landscapes proved impossible to retrieve. At the time of his death, at 96, his work was held in some 50 museums, recognising how effortlessly he had been the master of what a critic in 1914 called the “divine big emptiness which the mystic loves”.

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