Self Portraits: Edwin Dickinson

Self Portrait 1914

Self Portrait 11.5"x9.5" oil on canvas 1950

 Self Portrait 26"×24"oil on canvas 1954

Self Portrait in Gray Shirt 1943

Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978) is often called a "painter's painter", admired by artists and scholars but somewhat neglected by the general public.  

Although his very early work is colorful, much of his later work is almost monochromatic. Often his paintings are so dark that you need to stand in front of them for a while, letting your eyes adjust as you would in a dimly lit room. 

Dickinson would often use veiled symbolism, but he didn't like to try and explain what meaning he was after. His paintings make me think of uneasy dreams, their mysterious meaning not available to the rational mind. He painted 28 self portraits, and in many of them his presence seems slightly recessed from life itself, as though he were already sinking into the gloom of oblivion. I'm reminded of these lines from Macbeth:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more.

Don't misunderstand me; I love gray as much as any other color, like sadness in art, and think uneasy dreams are worth paying attention to.


  1. Dickinson is often a wonderful painter. It's interesting that some accounts of his life describe him as suffering from clinical depression. To my eye, even though I love his work, I can't help but feel I'm seeing evidence of his inner sadness, particularly in his self portraits and in his large multifigure compositions. His oils as Taryn point out usually lean towards a poetic darkness.

    I read the biography on Dickinson's contemporary Edward Hopper by Gail Levin a few years back when it first came out. By her description, Hopper was in his later life chronically irritable, and throughout his entire life unusually taciturn and socially withdrawn. In other words (my wife is a therapist) he was undoubtedly depressed. Yet Hopper seemed to lean just the other way than Dickinson, reaching out toward the most brilliantly strong sunlight in most of his work. And yet so many people see in Hopper a sense of loneliness and sadness.

    Exactly the truth of either of these men's internal lives will never really be known. But it is intriguing to speculate about how their moods intersected with their vividly alive paintings.

    1. Thanks for your interesting comments, Philip. Today I was reading a little about Dickinson's life, and found out that his mother died when he was five years old, and his younger brother committed suicide as a young man- while they were sharing an apartment. Also a very good friend lost his life in WWI, an incident that seemed to bring back some buried feelings from his earlier losses.

      Hopper reaching out for strong sunlight, and Dickinson remaining in the shadows, but both men probably clinically depressed...this all makes me want to cry- really!

  2. Thanks for exposing me to this intetesting work, id never heard of him before. Appreciated!

  3. Ben Kamihira was influenced alot by Dickinson, so he said.

  4. Yet another great painter that I've never heard of before but am now fascinated by. Thanks!

  5. Dickinson is one my favorites (of the 800 artists I adore) but anyhow, I did a short presentation on him this summer and one of the most memorable quotes was when asked about his influences, he replied: "I suppose being alive and awake.”

    1. Thanks for your comment, Lisa. I also came across a quote of Dickinson's that I especially like, but I like your quote even better. When a student asked Dickinson for his definition of art, he replied "Art is the organization of shapes."


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