Ernest Lawson 1873-1939

Sketch for Mural in Post Office in Short Hills, New Jersey

  • 8 x 12 inches (20.3 x 30.5 cm)
  • Oil on board
  • 1939

Why We Love It

This small landscape sketch was a study that Lawson made for a mural in the Short Hills, New Jersey Post Office. This four by twelve foot mural was painted during the last year of the artist’s life, and sadly, it no longer survives. However, in this charming little sketch Lawson encapsulated the vitality of this landscape scene through his loose energetic brushwork.

The Value

Ernest Lawson’s paintings of New York and New Jersey  may lack some of the grit of his fellow members of The Eight, but they brilliantly and candidly capture that distinct moment in American art history when artists first started investigating notions of Modernism.  Lawson’s unique approach to the landscape and his singular painting style make his works important contributions to the rich history of early modern American painting.  That this little sketch is tied to a larger mural, although now no longer extant, makes the work all the more interesting.

Artist Background

1873: Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, March 22; 1888: Studied at the Kansas City Art Insitute; 1889: Worked as a draftsman at the San Carlos Art Academy in Mexico City; 1891: Studied at the Art Students League with Twachtman; 1892: Studied with Twachtman and Weir at their art school in Connecticut; 1893: Studied in Paris at the Academie Julian; 1894: Married Ella Holman, a teacher he met at the Kansas City Art Institute; 1898: Settled in Washington Heights, New York City; 1903: Showed in an exhibition at the Colonial Club, New York City, organized by Robert Henri; 1904: Won a silver medal in the St. Louis Exposition; 1907: Had his first major one-person exhibition at the New York School of Art in February and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in March; 1908: Participated in The Eight exhibition at Macbeth Galleries; 1910: Participated in the Exhibition of Independent Artists; 1913: Participated in the Armory Show; 1915: Participated in the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco; 1916: Won the Second Altman Prize at the National Academy of Design; Made an Academician at the NAD; 1920: Won Temple Gold Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; 1921: Won First Altman Prize at the NAD; 1927: Travelled to Kansas City to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute; 1930: Travelled to France; 1936: Moved to Florida permanently; 1937-39: Commissioned by the Federal Art Project to paint a mural for the post office in Short Hills, New Jersey; 1939: Died by drowning in Miami Beach, Florida.

Ernest Lawson is an artist who defies easy categorization. His work exhibits characteristics of both Impressionism and realism. In fact, he studied with the American Impressionists, John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, and he also met and was deeply influenced by the French Impressionist, Alfred Sisley. On the other hand, he was a member of The Eight, which was connected to the Ashcan School, a group of artists who aimed to represent un-idealized views of everyday life.  Ultimately however, Lawson stayed true to himself, always believing that “what the artist needs more than anything else is to be true to his own individuality.”

Ernest Lawson was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1873. Lawson moved with his family to Kansas City, Missouri where he first studied art in 1888 at the Kansas City Art Institute.  In 1890, he traveled to Mexico City with his father and took a job as an engineering draftsman.  In 1891, he moved to New York and began classes at the Art Students League, where he studied under Twachtman and Weir.  Twachtman’s influence was great on Lawson’s personal style, as seen in the impressionistic technique and atmospheric effects of his paintings.  In 1893 Lawson went to Paris, where he briefly attended the Académie Julian and then studied independently, concentrating particularly on the works of Paul Cézanne and Alfred Sisley.  In 1898 he returned to New York.

Lawson probably cultivated his interest in the human impact on nature from the French Impressionists, for whom industrialization was at once fascinating and concerning. When Lawson returned to New York, the artist became associated with The Eight, an influential group of social realists concerned with painting urban motifs. However, Lawson never forwent his love of landscape painting, but rather explored the notions of urban and rural through his work. Lawson exhibited with The Eight at Macbeth Galleries in 1908. He participated in the Independent Artists Exhibition of 1910 and in the Armory Show of 1913.  During the 1920s he taught painting in Kansas City and Colorado Springs, and in 1936 he moved to Florida.

This small oil sketch was a study, which Lawson made for a mural commission for the Short Hills, New Jersey Post Office. He began working on the mural in Florida, late in the summer of 1939. He drowned tragically in Miami Beach only a few months later. The post office has since been demolished and the mural was destroyed along with it, however a few of these quick sketches remain. This delightful little painting captures the dynamic energy of Lawson’s unique style. The almost frenetic quality of his brushwork and the richness of the color are particularly remarkable and inspired the well-known description of his palette as being composed of “crushed jewels”.