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Preston Dickinson (1891-1930)
Preston Dickinson (1891-1930)

Tower of Gold

Preston Dickinson (1891-1930)
Tower of Gold
signed and dated 'P Dickinson 15' (lower right)--signed and dated again and inscribed with title (on the reverse)
oil and gold leaf on canvasboard
10 x 14 in. (25.4 x 35.6 cm.)
Charles Daniel, New York.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, 1944.
Meredith Galleries, New York, 1946.
Stephan Lion, New York.
Sotheby’s, New York, 1 December 1988, lot 254.
Sid Deutsch Gallery, New York.
Terry Dintenfass, Inc., New York.
Christie’s East, New York, 7 October 1997, lot 234.
Myron Kunin, Minneapolis, Minnesota, acquired from the above.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
R. Cloudman, Preston Dickinson, 1889-1930, exhibition catalogue, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1979, pp. 20, 38, 46-47, illustrated.
Barbara Mathes Gallery, Mabel Dodge: The Salon Years, 1912-1917, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1985, n.p., no. 12, illustrated.
G. Glueck, “Critics’ Choices; Art,” New York Times, October 13, 1985.
M.W. Fritzsche, American Pastels in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1989, pp. 134, 137.
Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Lincoln, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, and elsewhere, Preston Dickinson, 1889-1930, September 4-October 7, 1979, no. 11.
New York, Barbara Mathes Gallery, Inc., Mabel Dodge: The Salon Years, 1912-1917, September 28-November 2, 1985, no. 12.

Lot Essay

The youngest of the early Precisionists, Preston Dickinson was credited in 1917 with combining “technical precision and intellectual force to a degree hardly approached by any of his companions.” (G. Stavitsky, et al., Precisionism in America 1915-1941: Reordering Reality, Montclair, New Jersey, 1994, p. 14) Painted two years earlier, Tower of Gold is a rare and important work by Dickinson that is not only one of the first Precisionist works produced in America, but also the artist’s only work that acts as social commentary.

Painted during the Progressive Era in which there was great strife between the working and business classes, Tower of Gold, “holds a unique place both thematically and compositionally in Dickinson’s work. It’s theme of capitalism’s exploitation of the working man unfolds in a complex of scenes in which business-suited capitalists oversee laborers in overalls.” (Preston Dickinson 1889-1930, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1979, p. 20) During the 1910s, America was rapidly transitioning from an agrarian to an urban society and this was accompanied by the rise of big business, which to many represented materialism, greed and oppression of the less fortunate. Working class by birth, Dickinson sympathized with the laborers. “Based in the political and social unrest of the period, Tower of Gold is a forthright statement of its creator’s radical sympathies with labor’s increasingly militant struggle for reform against the corruption and power of big business. These ideas were eagerly discussed by artists and intellectuals in New York, and perhaps nowhere more fervently than at Mabel Dodge’s salon held in her apartment on Fifth Avenue. Moritz Jagendorf recalls attending some of Mabel Dodge’s evening with Dickinson, whom he remembers as a radical in his political opinions, though not a joiner of causes or groups.” (Preston Dickinson 1889-1930, p. 20)

In Tower of Gold, both the workers and the business men are anonymous archetypes repeated throughout the composition with the plump white-collars literally sitting above the laborers. The greed of the business class is manifested by the gold leaf skyscraper as well as the gold coins that appear throughout the composition. The business men are all rotund, well-fed “fat cats” while the workers are thinner and more angular. The laborers are also more plentiful in the composition, further demonstrating class inequity and the tyrannical power of the few at the top who sit idly by while the masses toil for their benefit. In the upper left, a business man holds gold in one hand and a church in the other, an analogy for the corrupting effects of wealth and the idea of money as religion. The distress of the working class is made clear by the figure at upper right who hurls a bomb at the city while holding an American flag. Other scenes involve mining, public transportation and construction. Dickinson weaves together these various vignettes to create a dynamic composition characterized by a repetition of form and color. Tower of Gold is a fascinating and complex work deserving of additional research. The use of gold leaf in the painting reflects Dickinson’s study of Islamic paintings, demonstrating the diversity of his sources. (M.W. Fritzche, American Pastels in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1989, p. 137n5) His choice of the application of this medium as coverings on the some heads can be interpreted in several ways. An admirer of the works of Italian Renaissance artist, Giotto di Bondone, Dickinson’s deification of the rich with Giotto-like haloes can be read as an early 20th century evocation of a theme long existent in American life – God’s reward of riches to the “deserving.” They may also be read by some as golden yarmulkes and thus a reference to a perception of Jewish wealth and success in business and banking. Painted only two decades after the Dreyfus affair and the year of the Leo Frank lynching, at a time when anti-Semitism was linked with several populist movements, this could be interpreted as a reference to Coin Harvey’s A Tale of Two Nations . (http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/antisemitism.html) Finally, these gilded coverings could also be meant as non-denominational indicators of wealth similar to the gold coins that appear throughout the composition.

Although the subject of the oppression of the working class was one that was popular with artists at the time, the style that Dickinson employs in Tower of Gold was unique among his peers. Ruth Cloudman writes, “The elegant, stylized form that Dickinson’s satire takes in Tower of Gold is in vivid contrast to the muscular realism of the political cartoons and satirical drawings…that filled the pages of the socialist magazine Masses at the time. In fact, there is little in American art of the period to compare with Tower of Gold as a social commentary in a cubistic idiom.” Cloudman goes on to liken Tower of Gold to the work of English Vorticist, Percy Wyndham Lewis and cites “certain formal correspondences—the general angularity, the use of scenes within scenes, blocks of buildings with blind windows, and flags at the pinnacles of roofs.” (Preston Dickinson 1889-1930, p. 20) Despite these similarities with Lewis’ work, Tower of Gold stands alone as a unique masterwork of early American modernism that captures the social and political unrest of the period in which it was painted.

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