At the Tweed Museum of Art, Morning of Life (1907) has been a singularly popular work—a touchstone for fans of Ericson’s art. Ericson married Duluthian Susan Barnard in 1903, and the “boy in the boat” is their only child, David B., at three years old. A poignant, some might say sentimental, work—the title says it all. Looking a tad apprehensively toward shore, it’s just dawning on the boy that there is a much bigger universe out there away from the safety of his known world. Is it a stretch to propose that Ericson intended this as a multi-generational portrait, looking back at himself and forward on behalf of his son? Morning of Life is oddly prescient—David B. Ericson (1904–1995) became a marine geologist, working out of Columbia University’s Lamont Geological Observatory, on water by profession.
Sailing ships, oceans, and shorelines figured prominently in David Ericson’s work. He had his own boat and sailed it in Provincetown. He loved big water and never lived far from it. First crossing the Atlantic at age 3, Ericson’s watery journey went from Motala, Sweden; Duluth; New York City; the French Mediterranean and Normandy Coasts; Venice; Buffalo, New York; Provincetown, Massachusetts; and finally back to Duluth. He and Susan made no less than eight ocean voyages between the U.S. and Europe between 1900 and 1940.
Many exhibitions of Ericson paintings were organized locally during his life and Duluthians enthusiastically collected his work. Much of it has made its way through two or three generations of local families and into the Tweed Museum of Art collection. Key works also reside at the St. Louis County Historical Society and the Duluth Public Library, and many excellent works are in private collections in Minnesota and beyond.
Ericson’s one regret seems to be that George Tweed, Duluth’s leading collector, ignored him and purchased all his art through dealers in larger cities. Ironically, Tweed’s dismissal of Ericson seems to be based in the very same attitude Ericson had toward artists more experimental than himself —if Ericson was conservative for his day, George Tweed was moreso. The situation irked Ericson enough that he engaged in a rare bit of vitriolic self-promotion, writing to Tweed:
“You are of course buying names but even in that, I can assure you that mine stands as high as the best. I knew [John Henry] Twachtman very well while a student in New York. I also know [Edward] Dufner well for he was a student with me. I know that I get the big thing, the thing that makes pictures live. Other artists think so too, they have told me so. Some of the dealers admit it, but dealers are rarely sincere. They talk up the things they want to sell.”
Ericson clung to sentiment in a world gone cynical after two world wars. Part of that sentiment was a desire to stay connected to his Duluth roots, perhaps to pay forward the early support he had received here. After all, it was the encouragement and financial assistance of Duluthians that allowed him to leave, to step out into the New York art world and from there to Europe. Ericson wasn’t from Duluth, but you could say he was made by it. Duluth claimed Ericson’s success, and continues to do so today. His works in local museum collections, especially the scores of paintings at the Tweed Museum of Art, and its investment in a 2005 retrospective and book, speak to his ongoing status as a local cultural icon.
Ericson never forgot his Duluth patrons, always returning to visit old friends, exhibit, sell and teach. When Susan died in 1941 he was heartbroken, and actually stopped painting for a time. Old friends convinced him to move back to Duluth. Again he immersed himself in painting, working out of studios above Decker’s Art Store and at Tweed Hall, part of UMD’s Old Campus. He completed a large commission for Duluth’s Serbian Orthodox Church, and taught classes for the Duluth Art Association. In 1946 at 77 years old Ericson quipped to a reporter, “Michelangelo and Titian both painted until they were about ninety. Death is the only retirement.” Before the year was out, Ericson had retired.
On December 5, 1946, while walking near his home, David Ericson was struck by a car at Superior Street and 12th Avenue East. He died on December 15 as a result of the injuries. Newspapers and local citizens lovingly eulogized the artist. Reports about the incident itself named the driver as one Ora Kenneth Mickle of Duluth, saying that there was to be a coroner’s inquest, but citing no reason for the investigation. Then, news went curiously silent. Almost seven decades later, a file probably lies buried in the County Coroner’s records office, waiting further review.
Given the questions (or lack of questions) surrounding Ericson’s death, it is the surely a subject of a future article. In the meantime, through his paintings we can still see life through Ericson’s eyes. As his friend and last student reminisced, “To him, all the world was filled with beauty, either in design, color or atmospheric content. ‘How elusive and mystical that is’ he would say, and he would glory in a sunset or a cloud effect, and discuss its possibilities in paint.”