IPSWICH — Just how fond was Arthur Wesley Dow of his hometown of Ipswich, a quiet refuge of seascape and farmland tucked along the north Massachusetts coast? In 1893, he captured a scene on the Ipswich River, with its stone bridges and clam shacks stacked up along the bank, and called it “Little Venice,” a high tribute to a humble place that never left his heart and mind.
Fortyish minutes north of Boston — depending, always, on traffic — Ipswich is likely best known for Crane Beach, a soft crescent of sand that curls along a usually gentle lap of waves just south of Plum Island Sound. But all around, in its acres of sand dunes and brushy hillsides, its salt marshes topped with bright green spartina grasses and quilted by snaking channels of tidewater that rise and fall with the moon, Ipswich is Dow country.
He painted Ipswich for decades with undying affection, and it has never failed to love him right back. This year is the 100th anniversary of his death — always an odd commemoration, it strikes me, but let no occasion for reverence pass. To mark it, the Ipswich Museum, which holds the largest collection of Dow materials in the country, opened a new tribute to the town’s most famous artistic progeny in May. About 20 miles inland, the Addison Gallery of American Art in North Andover has “Arthur Wesley Dow: Nearest to the Divine,” a jewel box of an exhibition that showcases the particularities of an artist whose strict visions of beauty helped shape a formative generation of American Modernism.
Dow was just as well known a teacher as artist. Georgia O’Keeffe, his star student, credited him with helping to shape her own vision: “This man had one dominating idea: to fill a space in a beautiful way,” she once said. “I had a technique for handling oil and watercolor easily. Dow gave me something to do with it.”
Whatever some locals want to believe, there’s no evidence O’Keeffe ever made it to Ipswich, curator Stephanie Gaskins told me. O’Keeffe studied with Dow in a formative moment early in her career at Columbia University in New York. And Dow himself ranged — to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian; to New York, where he taught both at Columbia and the Pratt Institute; to Japan, where he absorbed Eastern woodblock printing that would shape his own work; and to the Canadian Rockies and the Grand Canyon, where he found a universe of difference from a home folded into a soft landscape of marsh and dune. But he always came back — a fact that, living here, I’ve come to know well.
In Ipswich, Dow is everywhere. From my own front stoop, I can see the house on East Street, just two blocks from the riverbank, where Dow was born in 1857. Cross the Ipswich River by the Green Street Bridge, and you’ll be at the 1680 Howard House, which Dow bought in the late 1880s and restored out of ruin to convert to his studio school, where students from all over came every summer to study with him from 1891 to 1906. Climb Spring Street up Town Hill, a steep and looming mass that rises to the north, and, depending on the season, you might catch a glimpse of Dow’s daily inspiration: the view east toward Strawberry Hill, the salt marshes and sea just beyond. Dow’s studio was here until it burned down in 1930, taking a heartbreaking mass of his work with it; 18 acres were bequeathed to the town to become Dow Park after his death, but the clear views he enjoyed more than a century ago are gone, overtaken by untended wilderness.
Ipswich has changed much since Dow’s time. Where the clam shacks once lined the riverbank, motorboats, kayakers, and paddleboarders push in, coasting on tides as they surge and recede. But it’s also so very much the same. The stone bridges he loved to paint have stood here for centuries; dozens of pre-Revolution homes, some almost 400 years old, line its streets, intact, lived in, and lovingly stewarded.
And the marsh and river are constant, eternal. Dow’s pictures of that landscape are a mirror: “The Derelict, or The Lost Boat,” 1916, of a little dory with its wood-ridged hull pulled up along a channel in the marsh, could be a snapshot of any day here, any year. You could drive out Argilla Road, a slim ribbon of asphalt that winds the 4 miles from town through marsh and forest to the beach, and see it today.
Dow’s love of the place was so much more than just affection for home. Its landscapes provided for him an inexhaustible range of texture, color, and light on which to impose his vision. He was a stickler for whom compositional harmony was the bedrock of any art worth seeing. (His 1905 book, “Composition,” is liturgy in the cult of Dow.) Composition, line, and color were elemental, a discipline he imparted to students, O’Keeffe included, that would liberate their minds and souls. Within a framework, they would be free.
In Ipswich, Dow, a leader of the American Arts and Crafts movement, never saw the same thing the same way twice, a mutability that demanded order from his artist’s eye. At the Addison, several series of Dow’s woodblock prints show an identically framed scene, radically recolored: There are a half-dozen variations of “The Derelict, or The Lost Boat,” from simple black lines on white to an opulent flood of gold, sky-blue, and green; in three versions of “Little Venice,” river and sky shift dramatically in depths of saturation and hue. “Ipswich Shanties,” an 1892 oil painting of stilted shacks along the river, is flanked by much smaller woodcut prints with an uncanny sameness. One of them is monochrome, an azure blue, the little rooflines and riverbank defined only by light and shade.
At the Ipswich Museum, personal effects reveal his inquisitive, bright-eyed fussiness. In one sketch, Dow limned the contours of the Grand Canyon, taking exhaustive note of the varying shades of russet on its incredibly varied stone walls, inch by inch: “yellow”; “hazy yellow”; “smokey yellow”; “raw sienna.” But Dow’s love of his hometown blossoms in a nearby room chock-full of his paintings, which tile the wall all the way up to the ceiling. They’re an ode to the world just outside the door: four versions of the view over Strawberry Hill to the sea, in winter, spring, summer, and fall; salt hay bunched in round stacks dotting the marsh; a scene from the riverbank up Spring Street, its leafy expanse lined with historic homes to the crest of hill.
For reasons I’ll never quite understand, Dow’s perch in Ipswich was his alone. Just a few miles around the rocky tip of Halibut Point, you’ll find Rockport and Gloucester, where generations of American artists holed up, captivated by the iridescent wonder of Cape Ann’s otherworldly light. For artists like Fitz-Henry Lane, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, and even Mark Rothko, whose oppressive fogs of color I can see so clearly in a sunset of a steamy summer Gloucester evening, inspiration lived in the salt spray and heavy stone of the Cape Ann shore.
Let them have it, Dow might have thought. Just around the corner, in the soft, sandy shores and grassy wetlands of his hometown, he had an inexhaustible world of color and light all his own.
ARTHUR WESLEY DOW: NEAREST TO THE DIVINE Through July, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover. 978-749-4000, addison.andover.edu
CELEBRATING THE ART & LIFE OF ARTHUR WESLEY DOW Through October, Ipswich Museum, 54 South Main St., Ipswich. 978-356-2811, www.ipswichmuseum.org