Ernest Lawson

Ernest Lawson

 Ernest Lawson, painter (b at Halifax 22 Mar 1873; d at Miami Beach, Florida 18 Dec 1939). In 1883 Dr Archibald Lawson left Halifax for Kansas City due to an inquest over an illegal operation and his son Ernest was sent to live with his uncle, Rev George Munro GRANT, Principal of Queen's University in Kingston. Ernest Lawson lived in Kansas City and Mexico City in 1888-1890, studied at the Art Students League, New York City, from 1891 and at John N. Twachtman's and J. Alden Weir's summer school at Cos Cob, Connecticut. In 1893 he was briefly at the Académie Julian in Paris and painted at Moret-sur-Loing, where he met the Anglo-French Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley. After a brief trip to Canada in 1896, he taught for a year in Columbus, Georgia, then settled in New York in 1898. Living in the north end of Manhattan Island in Washington Heights, he painted many landscapes of the Harlem River. He later moved to Greenwich Village, where he associated with William Glackens, Robert Henri and the new Realists.

Though he was primarily a landscape painter, Lawson often focused on prosaic subjects found on the edges of the urban environment, and it was for this as much as for his rugged expression that he was invited to exhibit with The Eight in New York in 1908, a notable exhibition in the history of American art. Lawson had considerable critical success during these years. He was one of the organizers of and exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York and won numerous prizes including a silver medal at the Universal Exposition at Saint Louis in 1904 and a gold medal at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition in 1915. He was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design in 1908 and full member in 1917.

Twachtman, Weir and Sisley would be the dominant influences in the development of Lawson's personal interpretation of Impressionism. Primarily interested in colour, he worked the paint with brush, knife and thumb, creating thickly impastoed surfaces, painting similar compositions in varying formats and tones to express the effect of colour in different moods. The New York critic James Huneker described Lawson's work as painted with "a palette of crushed jewels." He didn't draw or paint studies for his canvases but worked directly from the motif or in the studio. He painted in Spain in 1916-17, in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in 1924, in Colorado from 1927 and Florida from 1931. While he had considerable critical success in his early years, by the 1930s the market for his work had dwindled severely and he had severe financial and health problems.

In the United States Lawson claimed to have been born in San Francisco, yet in Canada he did not deny his Haligonian birth and was elected a member of the Canadian Art Club in 1912, exhibiting with the Club from 1911 to 1915. Following the First World War, A.Y. JACKSON identified Lawson, together with J.W. MORRICE and Tom THOMSON, as the 3 founders of modern Canadian art. Exhibitions of Lawson's paintings were held in Halifax in 1919, in Toronto and Montréal in 1930 and in Ottawa in 1967.

Further Reading

  • F. N. Price, Ernest Lawson, Canadian-American (1930); Guy Pène du Bois, Ernest Lawson (1932); H. & S. Berry-Hill, Ernest Lawson: American Impressionist (1968); A.L. Karpiscak, Ernest Lawson 1873-1939 (1979); M. O'Brien, Ernest Lawson (1873-1939) from Nova Scotia Collections (1983).