Maynard Dixon was born in Fresno, California into an aristocratic family that migrated from Virginia after the American Civil War. He was born as Henry St. John Dixon and later changed his name to Lafayette Maynard Dixon. His mother shared her love of classic literature with him and encouraged his writing and drawing from an early age. Maynard Dixon studied briefly at the California School of Design and at San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Institute of Art. To support himself he worked as an illustrator and obtained work from the Overland Monthly and several San Francisco newspapers.
In 1900’ Maynard Dixon traveled to Arizona and New Mexico and found his artistic inspiration and calling. The next year he accompanied artist Edward Borein on a horseback trip through several Western states. Returning to California, he illustrated books and magazines with Western themes based on his sketches from his trip, some of which appeared in books by Jack London, John Muir, O. Henry, and Clarence Mulford’s books about Hopalong Cassidy. For a time he lived in New York, but soon returned to the western United States where he said he could create “honest art of the west” instead of the romanticized illustrations he was being paid to create. Dixon developed his own unique style during this early period, and Western themes became his trademark.
After 1912, he could no longer paint the West in “false” terms. Maynard Dixon dedicated more time to painting and experimenting with impressionism, post-impressionism, and large-scale mural decoration. Influenced by the Panama Pacific International Exposition on 1915, Dixon found a new expression and began moving away from an impressionistic style into a more modern style. Meeting and marrying Dorothea Lange, a portrait photographer also had influenced his art. Maynard’s style had changed to more compelling compositions, with an increased focus on color, and self-expression. During the Great Depression, Dixon painted a series of social realism canvases depicting the prevailing politics and those affected deeply by the depression. Dixon’s social realism paintings, such as Forgotten Man, have been stylistically and thematically linked to the works of American realist painter Edward Hopper. At the same time, Lange photographed migrant workers in the Salinas Valley and city breadlines. These images would make her famous. In 1933, the Dixons spent the summer in Zion Park, Utah. Dorothea was called back to San Francisco and the separation led to the couple’s divorce in 1935.
Two years later, Dixon married prominent San Francisco muralist Edith Hamlin. The couple left San Francisco for Southern Utah. During this time, Maynard Dixon created some his greatest art. In 1939, the couple built a summer home in Mount Carmel, Utah where Dixon became reacquainted with the local landscapes. Dixon spent winter months in Tucson, where the couple also had a home and studio. Dixon continued to create masterpieces in his unique style of powerful compositions in which non-essential elements were distilled or eliminated.
In November 1946, Maynard Dixon died at his winter home in Tucson. Ansel Adams once commented that for Maynard Dixon, “the West was uncrowded, unlittered, unorganized and free.” From 1900 to his death in 1946, Dixon periodically roamed the West’s plains, mesas, and deserts on foot, horseback, buckboard-even by automobile-drawing, painting, and writing, pursuing a transcendent awareness of the region’s spirit. The Brigham Young University of Art holds the world’s largest collection of Maynard Dixon works. At the core of the collection are 85 paintings purchased from the artist.
There are several books about Maynard Dixon recently published to learn more about this extraordinary artist.
The Art of Maynard Dixon, by Donald J. Hagerty
The Life of Maynard Dixon, by Donald J. Hagerty
A Place of Refuge: Maynard Dixon’s Arizona, by Thomas Brent Smith