"Abandoned Gold Mine, Cripple Creek", c. 1927 | 16”x 20” - oil on canvas
Lawson painted the "Abandoned Gold Mine, Cripple Creek" around 1927, when he was teaching at the Broadmoor Art Academy. This excellent example shows his rich “crushed jewel” technique, created by using a palette knife to allow the paint surface to catch the light at many angles. The intensely contrasting colors strengthen the effect.
Canadian-born Ernest Lawson became one of the most important second-generation Impressionist painters in American in the first part of the twentieth century. He initially trained at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1888. A year later he moved to Mexico City where his father was a practicing physician. There he worked as a draftsman for Pearson & Sons, English engineers, and also studied briefly at the San Carlos Art Academy. With money saved from his employment, he relocated to New York in 1890, enrolling in the Art Students League where he studied with John H Twachtman. He also took summer classes in Cos Cob, Connecticut, with Twachtman and fellow American Impressionist, J. Alden Weir, and where he did his first plein air painting.
In 1893 Lawson traveled to France to polish his artistic skills. After briefly studying with Jean Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant at the Académie Julian, he resumed painting plein air in the countryside, first at Martigues and then at Moiret-sur-Loing near the Fontainebleau Forest. There he met elderly Anglo-French Impressionist, Albert Sisley, who influenced his work. Nonetheless, Lawson sought to develop and retain his own style, saying that “French influence kills if taken in too large a dose.” By 1894 when he exhibited two paintings at the Salon des Artistes Français in Paris, William Merritt Chase dubbed him “America’s greatest landscape painter.”
Returning to the United States in 1897, Lawson initially taught in Columbus, Georgia, before settling in Washington Heights in New York City where for several decades he produced a number of his well-recognized impressionist landscape paintings of the neighborhood. In 1903 he participated in a show at the Colony Club in New York, organized by Robert Henri that included John Sloan, William Glackens and George Luks, among others, who later became part of The Eight (pejoratively termed by some the Ashcan School). In 1908 Lawson participated in the group’s inaugural exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in Manhattan and the same year was elected an Associate Member of the National Academy and awarded its first Hallgarten Prize. (He became an Academician in 1917.)
A charter member of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, he served on the Committee of Foreign Exhibits that helped organized the landmark New York Armory Show in 1913 in which he was represented by three landscapes. Two years later he won a gold medal at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, and in 1916 the Second Altman Prize at the National Academy of Design, as well as the Second W.A. Clark Prize and the Corcoran Silver Medal. The prize money financed his trip to Spain where he painted in Segovia and Toledo.
While he continued to win important prizes for his work in the early 1920s -- such as the Temple Prize from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1920), the First Altman Prize from the National Academy of Design (1921) and the Arts Club Members Prize (1925) – financial troubles and bouts of alcoholism after World War I caused separation from his family and the loss of some patrons. While teaching at the Kansas City Art (1926-27) he accepted a position to teach for three summers at the Broadmoor Art Academy in Colorado Springs beginning in 1927. Prior to coming to Colorado, two of his paintings had been included in the annual exhibitions of the Denver Artists Club in 1910 and 1914, along with fellow members of The Eight, Robert Henri and Arthur B. Davies. Founded in 1919, the Broadmoor Art Academy owed its beginnings to the patronage of a wealthy couple, Julia Penrose, a prominent philanthropist and patron of the arts in Colorado, and her husband, Spencer Penrose, who build the world famous Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. The Academy (from 1936 the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center) functioned for more than a generation as an important cultural center in the Rocky Mountain West.
Lawson may well have been encouraged to come to Colorado Springs by two New York artist-colleagues: Robert Reid, a fellow National Academician and member of The Ten American Painters who taught figure painting at the Broadmoor Art Academy from 1920 to 1927, and by Randall Davey who taught there from 1925 to 1930 and who preceded Lawson as a teacher at the Kansas City Art Institute. Although not pleased by his rather low salary in comparison to Davey’s, he became part of the Academy’s distinguished faculty in the 1920s that included John F. Carlson, Birger Sandzén and William Potter, among others.
Like many other artists and students at the Broadmoor Art Academy – and later the Fine Arts Center under Boardman Robinson – Lawson gained an appreciation for the vast expanse west of the Mississippi River. Even though his Colorado connection occupies a relatively small part of his career and included classroom duties, he managed to produce several dozen paintings and some monotypes. They are important as new subject matter in the context of his whole creative output. He painted his Colorado canvases in his “crushed jewel” technique, a term previously coined by New York critic James Huneker to describe his style.
When not teaching at the Broadmoor Art Academy, Lawson adapted his practice of plein air painting in the East to a rugged, mountainous environment whose atmospheric conditions proved quite different from the ones he previous encountered in Europe and in his upper Manhattan neighborhood. However, as he later told fellow artist, Guy Pène du Bois, “I couldn’t feel the place; that stuff, it was too bleak…forbidding.” Nevertheless, Colorado allowed Lawson to explore a new locale and to recapture solidity in his work, ascribed to his exposure to Cézanne’s painting in Paris several decades earlier.
Like John F. Carlson, Robert Reid and Birger Sandzén before him, Lawson found in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs a wonderland of red sandstone rock formations, providing him and his students with abundant material for onsite painting. From a vantage point high above the city he captured the expanse of the plains stretching eastward, as in Rocks and Plains, View from a Mountain Top and Gateway to the Plains. Other subjects in the vicinity of Colorado Springs were Pikes Peak, Cheyenne Mountain and Glen Eyrie just north of the Garden of the Gods and the location of an English Tudor-style castle built in 1903 by General William Jackson Palmer. Lawson also painted local mountain ranches and roads into the mountains.
A number of his Colorado landscapes were included in a joint exhibition held with Randall Davey in the main gallery of Chappell House-Denver Art Museum at the conclusion of Lawson’s first summer in Colorado. A lengthy review in the Denver press referenced his issues with the light and contours of the local landscape more than a mile above sea level:
To a Denver art lover Mr. Lawson’s landscapes…are especially interesting as they represent an interpretation of the Rocky Mountains by one who has had his first experience with them this year. The beautiful undulating shadows, so dense in the clear air and bright light of Colorado, are difficult to the newcomer, especially as they seem to increase in density as the distance increases.
We remember a comment of Mr. Lawson’s in a conversation recently when he said: “The more I try to paint the shadows out here the more it puzzles me. The effect changes so quickly that it seems impossible to record it before another equally beautiful is formed….That Lawson has mastered this difficulty is realized as soon as one looks at the paintings at Chappell House.
During the following summers he spent at the Broadmoor Art Academy, he painted elsewhere in the state, such as the Great Sand Dunes, the Sangre de Cristos straddling the border into northern New Mexico (which he also visited and painted), as well as the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River, a popular tourist attraction near Cañon City, Colorado. He also produced a number of views of Cripple Creek, a once prosperous nineteenth-century mining town in the mountains west of Colorado Springs that by the 1920s was a vestige of its former self. These images anticipate the great interest taken in Colorado mines and ghost towns by the Broadmoor Art Academy’s students and teachers in the 1930s. Gold Mining, Cripple Creek (1929), a large painting, won Lawson the Saltus Gold Medal from the National Academy in 1930. It represented an important professional recognition, buoying him up at the beginning of what would be his most difficult decade with the onset of the Great Depression and greatly reduced income coupled with increasing health problems.
After the Broadmoor Art Academy, he returned to New York where in 1930 F. Newlin Price, the owner of Ferargil Gallery in New York who handled Lawson’s work, published the first book about him. Two years later price hosted an exhibition of Lawson’s canvases of New York and Colorado. In the Herald Tribune art critic Royal Cortissoz summed up the artist’s respective approaches to his subject matter, giving his Colorado work equal billing – not always the case during his lifetime and afterward.
This painter, who turned French Impressionism into his own individual style, paints poetic subjects, and his effect is delicately atmospheric and mistily luminous. Then he turns to more concrete things [a reference to his Colorado work] in which he seems to sacrifice the poetic quality.
However, the observer comes to realize that in leaving his paler, more opalescent harmonics for others having up a sharper tang, Mr. Lawson is not ill-advised. On the contrary, with the adoption of a more complex color scheme, a more agate-like and denser quality, he achieves greater brilliance. His whole sense of things seems to grow deeper and stronger. His handling of rocky forms is more plastic and more impressive….All of Mr. Lawson’s moods are productive of arresting canvases, largely because he paints from so markedly personal a point of view.
In 1936 Lawson permanently relocated to Coral Gables, Florida, where lived with Katherine and Royce Powell. He previously met them in Colorado Springs and had paid them summer visits in Florida in the early 1930s. Advancing rheumatoid arthritis curtailed his painting, but in the summer of 1939 he completed a mural commission under the Federal Art Project for the post office in Short Hills, New Jersey (destroyed in 1963). Shortly before Christmas 1939 his body was found on the beach in Miami, an apparent downing victim.
Museum Collections: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Brooklyn Museum, all in New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts; New Britain Museum of Art, Connecticut; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and The Phillips Collection, all in Washington, DC; Princeton University Art Museum; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania; Telfair Museums, Savannah, Georgia; Cleveland Museum of Art; Detroit Institute of Arts; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Art Institute of Chicago; Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago; Saint Louis Art Museum; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska; Wichita Art Museum; San Antonio Museum of Art; McNay Art Museum, San Antonio; Phoenix Art Museum; San Diego Museum of Art; The Huntington Library, San Marino; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Santa Barbara Museum of Art; de Young Museum, San Francisco; Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver. In Canada: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario; Art Gallery of Ontario; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Dalhousie University Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia; University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, Alberta.