Motor Illustrator: William de Leftwich Dodge
May 1916 cover. A young woman rests her head on a man's shoulder as he drives along a wooded road at night, the mid-air vision of a lovely, red-haired female spirit in a white, filmy gown leading him onward.
Artist William de Leftwich Dodge (March 9, 1867 — March 25, 1935) was born in Bedford, Virginia, to a father who was an insurance agent fond of art and poetry and a mother who was an aspiring artist. When William was 3, the family moved to Chicago, and about 1879, on to Brooklyn. About that time, as well, William's mother Mary decided to move to Europe in pursuit of her artistic dreams. Her husband stayed behind but the rest of the family moved first to Munich, then Paris. There, Dodge studied at the Academie Colarossi. When a cholera epidemic threatened the city in 1884, however, the family moved again, to Berlin, where they stayed about six months until a return to Paris.
From the time William was in his mid-teens, his mother gave him art lessons, though he also studied art at the École des Beaux Arts and, later, under Jean-Léon Gérôme (historical painting, mythological scenes, etc.) and Raphaël Collin (who linked Japanese and French art styles). While still in Paris, Dodge applied for commissions to paint murals in the U.S. The possibility of one of those commissions coming his way likely influenced his decision to move to New York, and, in 1889, he leased studio space from painter George Bridgman and continued to execute paintings, some of which were exhibited at the National Academy of Design and the American Art Association.
The first mural commission to come through for him was a commission to paint a dome mural at the administration building of the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago. The youngest artist at work there, he hoped to do well enough to pop the question to a New York belle who had captured his heart, Frances "Fanny" Bland Pryor. In 1891, he made the trip to Chicago and was tapped to serve as an assistant to Richard Morris Hunt, designer of the Great Chicago Fire mural. Dodge returned to New York once that painting was done.
When he learned that a final commission for the Exposition, a dome mural in the Exposition's administration building, had not yet been commissioned, he applied to Hunt for the job. Hunt agreed but had only three thousand dollars in project funds remaining, barely enough to pay for paint and materials. The painting was to be the largest of the Exposition murals, three hundred feet in diameter and filling the dome that rose 277 feet from ground level. The subject Dodge painted was, "Glorification of the Arts and Sciences" and depicted Apollo on his throne receiving robed representatives of arts and sciences. Architecture is represented by two winged steeds drawing a cart that holds a model of the Parthenon. The representative of Sculpture carries a sheaf of wheat, and other figures, some arrayed on stone amphitheater steps, hold representative emblems, as well — instruments, flowers, etc. Behind Apollo sit judges, the wise men; and above him a nymph offers a laurel wreath. (Note: Dodge created a smaller, working version of the painting, which is now in a Chicago home. See www.dnainfo.com of March 4, 2016.)
The work in Chicago led Dodge to a challenging commission to paint murals at the Library of Congress. In the library's northwest pavilion he painted the dome (themed, Ambition) and four lunettes depicting, in art nouveau style, Literature, Music, Science, and Art. The completion of the two-year job netted the artist enough to marry and move to New York in 1900. While that was his major source of income, he was also illustrating French magazines. In 1901, he had exhibitions in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis, his art works ranging from figurative works to marine subjects and landscapes. His works, which showed the influence of the impressionists and the fauvists, were marked by through preparation and effective technique.
Over the course of his career, his murals would grace the King Edward Hotel in Toronto (history of Canada), the New York Capitol, and Buffalo City Hall. They would also embellish rooms in hotels, mansions, steamers, theatres, universities, and other public buildings. In 1915, for instance, he exhibited a huge six-panel mural at the Panama Pacific Exposition illustrating the meeting of cultures west and east of the Panama Canal. While his mural work was incredibly successful, it was very physically demanding, at times leaving the artist seriously ill from overwork.
Dodge was also a teacher, teaching at the Art Students League in 1915 and from 1925 to 1929, and at Cooper Union 1916-1929. He illustrated books like 1899's The Great Operas, and, from 1901, an eight-volume work, The Complete Works of Shakespeare. His illustrations also appeared in well-known magazines such as Scribner's, Colliers, and The Century and in lesser-known ones like The Youth's Companion (an early version of Boy's Life), The Delineator (a woman's magazine), and Christian Herald.
In his later years, Dodge became an expert in Mayan art. He was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum as well as a member of the Players Club, the Fencers Club, and the Virginians of New York City Club. His work is held in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Academy of Design.
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