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Sidney Edward Dickinson: Alabama Suite


In a successful career as a New York art teacher and portraitist, Sidney Dickinson (1890-1980) also developed a powerful body of figurative work, most of it focused on a year he spent painting in Calhoun, Alabama. The Alabama Studio and other paintings are included in this 2002 exhibition of work from the artist's early years.

Excerpts from the label text on the walls of the exhibition are reprinted below:


Sidney E. Dickinson 1890­1980

Dickinson, a native of Connecticut, was largely known as a teacher and portrait painter. In 1910­1911 he studied at the prestigious Art Students League in New York, where he took portrait and still life painting with William Merritt Chase and figure drawing with George Bridgman.

After a short interlude in Alabama, he settled in Manhattan.  He taught at the Art Students League, first in 1919, and then from 1949 until 1973. His mainstay was portraiture, and his sitters included John D. Rockefeller, Samuel Kress, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and Governor Thomas Kilby of Alabama.  His philosophy was simple:  "I never start a portrait with a preconceived idea about the sitter. I feel so much may be revealed in a face. A banker: why a banker may have the quality of a poet."

The Calhoun School

Sidney Dickinson spent the years 1917 and 1918 at the Calhoun School for African-American students in rural Alabama near Montgomery.  There he joined his father, Charles, a Congregational minister, his mother, the school's librarian, and his brother, an engineer.  All had gone to Calhoun to assist his maternal aunt, Charlotte Rogers Thorn.  

In 1892, Thorn, a thirty-five-year-old socialite from New Haven, co-founded the Calhoun School.  The vocational focus of the school was modeled after the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where Thorn had taught for several years.  Located in the cotton belt, the Calhoun school was in one of the poorest areas of the state, where black residents outnumbered whites seven-to-one.

For forty years Thorn led the school, with advice from Booker T. Washington and support from prominent Northern businessmen.  Its campus became known as "The Lighthouse on the Hill."

The Alabama Studio

In 1919 Sidney Dickinson exhibited The Alabama Studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  It was probably the most ambitious canvas the twenty-nine-year-old painter had ever done.   An old inscription identified the figures: Emma, Maggie, and Sammy.  Emma (foreground) and Maggie appear in other paintings, for example, Maggie the Octoroon.

The artist's studio was a theme that had been popularized by William Merritt Chase, Dickinson's instructor at the Art Students League.   The composition is also reminiscent of Diego de Velásquez's masterpiece in the Prado, Las Meninas, where the Spanish painter shows himself surrounded by paintings from the royal collection and members of the royal family.

While Dickinson has streamlined the setting and rearranged the figures, several elements relate to Las Meninas, including his self-portrait at the left, the use of a mirror, and a dominant figure dressed in white looking directly at the viewer.  Instead of a courtly entourage-complete with dwarf and pet-Dickinson painted three students from the Calhoun School.

The Changing Landscape of Alabama

In 1926 Dickinson returned to Alabama to paint a portrait of Governor Thomas E. Kilby.  Invitations to the unveiling of the painting described the commission as done by "one of the most famous portrait artists in the country. . . . Those who have seen the portrait say it is a splendid piece of work and an excellent likeness of Governor Kilby."

While visiting Montgomery, Dickinson painted a scene on the outskirts of the capital.  He juxtaposed the old, rural South with a looming skyline, presumably a reference to increasing industrialization and urbanization.  His first canvas (on the left) was painted en plein air, in the outdoors, much as the French Impressionists had done before him.  The second painting is more sharply focused, with brighter light on the buildings in the middle ground, and more colorful touches, as in the laundry.  In the second version, which was probably completed in his studio, Dickinson also omits the foreground figure, which serves to distance the scene from the viewer.


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