David Ericson

Cover of the May 1905 issue of Life magazine painted by David Ericson. (Image: Public Domain)

The Artist Abroad

In New York, Ericson took a studio on East 23rd Street, immersed himself in classes and frequented the city’s museums. At the Art Students League between 1887 and 1890 his principal instructors were Kenyon Cox, Harry Mowbray, and George Forest Brush, relatively conservative painters who all had careers as illustrators. He also studied with James Carroll Beckwith and William Merritt Chase, took a course in modeling with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and attended Thomas Eakins’ famous anatomy lectures. Looking at the subtlety of Ericson’s figurative works it is easy to see how much he benefitted from the League’s academic training. Before long he was contributing illustrations to magazines (The Youth’s Companion, St. Nicholas, Scribners, The Century) and creating cover paintings for Life. To further support himself Ericson worked as an engraver for Tiffany & Co.

Ericson spent the 1890s traveling between New York and Duluth, where he painted portraits in both places and continued to produce magazine illustrations. He befriended the artists John Henry Twachtman and Edward Dufner and had interesting encounters with writer Stephen Crane, painting his portrait in 1892. Fifty years later, at the request of Crane biographer Ames Williams, Ericson wrote a three-page reminiscence:

“About the year 1893 Steven (sic) Crane drifted into my studio in the old Needham Building, East 23rd St. He was, at that time, writing The Red Badge of Courage. I remember one time when he was lying in a hammock of his saying ‘That is great!’ I thought how conceited he is. But when he read me the passage, I realized at once how wonderfully real it was, and said that the writer ad that advantage over us painters in that he could make his men walk, talk and think. Whereas a painter can only depict a man in one position at a time. He seemed very pleased with this compliment. That was a week or so before I painted his sweetheart’s portrait.”

The image on the left is an 1892 portrait of author Stephen Crane by David Ericson, oil on board, and the image on the right is the 2006 cover of the book Stephen Crane Remembered. (Painting: Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth)

If Ericson gave Crane a portrait he painted, the small, black-and-white grisaille portrait of Crane shown above, dated 6.20.92, might be another version Ericson made, as it came through his son’s estate to the Tweed Museum of Art. The portrait of Crane’s “sweetheart” Ericson refers to has never been located. Ericson goes on to talk about Crane’s infamous “slumming” for subject matter in New York’s seediest neighborhoods, crashing at his studio, and stiffing him with the bill at a restaurant. Ericson’s portrait was used on the cover of a 2006 book which includes his reminiscence of Crane, among many others.

Ericson’s sketch of his New York studio/apartment made sometime between 1900 and 1910, was found in a sketchbook purchased from the estate of the artist’s son. (Image: Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth)

With income from painting sales and illustration work, Ericson traveled to Europe in 1900 and enrolled in the Paris atelier of James McNeill Whistler. He had long been attracted to Whistler’s romantic references to poetry and music —arrangements, symphonies, nocturnes, harmonies—and Ericson created many paintings in this moody style. At times we see Ericson leaning toward Impressionism and divisionism, at other times he uses fast brush, fluid description, like his former teacher Chase. Ericson has been described more than once as peripatetic, but we might also just call him a versatile craftsman, able and willing to paint for a particular purpose and effect, and in control. After all, Ericson made a fairly good living and supported a family. He did not like non-objective abstract tendencies in art, and did not engage with avant garde experimenters at home or in Europe. Works like Alps Maritime and Landscape, France (both 1925) are as abstract as Ericson decided he wanted to be.

Alps Maritime, 1925, oil on canvas. (Image: Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth).

What endears Ericson to us is both his international reputation, exemplified by a 1924 feature article in International Studio, and his willingness adapt his painting practice to local needs, as he did in paintings at Hibbing High School and Duluth’s Gloria Dei Lutheran and St. George Serbian Orthodox churches. Each time Ericson traveled, taught, exhibited, or won an award, the local press lit up—the Duluth papers followed his every movement. Had Ericson gone over to post-Impressionist modernism, we probably would have lost him—or quite willingly given him up.

Swearing Allegiance to the United States, one of six mural-size paintings on themes of American history and citizenship, 1922–23. (Image: Hibbing High School, Hibbing, MN, courtesy of the Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth)

In his own opinion, the closest he came to finding his own style was in the 1930s in Venice, after decades of moving all over Europe and between continents. “This time I realized Venice so much better than I did thirty years ago when I was a student. I have a scheme which I shall try when I get settled into our studio—of painting the ideas in blue and white and then glazing transparent colors over so as to produce a dreamlike quality.”

Chiesa Della Salute, ca. 1930s, oil on canvas. (Image: Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth)

This glazing or “scumbling” of color over a thick textured underpainting produced some amazing results for Ericson. He goes on to say “Today we took a look at my Venetian pictures…ten rather large ones and a number of smaller ones. I have developed a personal style in these so that they are the most elegant in color and tonal qualities that I have ever done.” From an objective, formal standpoint, these paintings look like combinations of Monet’s impressionism and Whistler’s tonalism. Not earth shattering, but pleasing, and fun surfaces to visually dig into and explore.

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