Also known as: Mabel Jacque Williamson
Although early in her career Mabel Dwight enjoyed minor success as a painter and illustrator in New York, she was past 50 when, in the mid-1920s, she established a reputation as one of America's best lithographers. Her popular yet insightful work chronicled, often with a touch of humor, the people and eccentricities of New York City's urban landscape.
Mabel Dwight was born Mabel Jacque Williamson on January 31, 1875, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the only child of Paul Houston and Adelaide Jacque Williamson. The Williamsons moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, when Mabel was a young girl and then, in the early 1890s, to San Francisco, California, where she finished her secondary education. She subsequently studied at San Francisco's Mark Hopkins Institute of Art and became a member, and ultimately a director, of the Sketch Club, California's first organization solely for women artists. It was during her stay in San Francisco that Williamson's political views were shaped: she was introduced to socialistic ideas which, she later recalled, was like "getting religion."
After leaving California, Williamson traveled to Egypt, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, and Java (Indonesia). By 1903 she had settled in New York City's Greenwich Village, a gathering place for emerging artists, writers, and young people attracted to socialism and other radical causes. She married fellow socialist and artist George Higgins in 1906; their childless union ended in divorce a decade later. During the mid-1920s Dwight abandoned her married name, although why she chose the surname Dwight is unclear. Her marriage was followed by a lengthy and often painful love affair with a friend named Roderick Seidenberg, an architectural draftsman and militant socialist who was 14 years Dwight's junior. Their relationship ended by 1929, when Seidenberg left New York for a temporary job on a construction project in the Soviet Union. During his return trip, he met another woman, whom he eventually married. Dwight's years with both Higgins and Seidenberg were marked by emotional hardship and poverty. Along with her political beliefs, her own experiences help explain Dwight's fundamental conviction that "poverty is the great evil—a form of black plague inexcusable in a scientific age."
The major turning point in Dwight's career came in 1926 when she traveled to Paris and took up where the well-known print dealer Carl Zigrosser, her friend since 1913, was promoting her work. began with In the Subway (1927) and continued with classics such as Ferry Boat (1930), Derelicts (1931)—a grim depiction of depression-era outcasts along the East River—and Queer Fish (1936), described by Dwight as a confrontation she witnessed at the New York Aquarium that featured "a huge Grouper fish and a fat man trying to outstare each other."
In "Satire in Art," as essay written during the late 1930s, Dwight observed that "satire may play lightly with man's foibles–in kindly, ironic vein portray him not as such a bad fellow after all, but at times a rather absurd one." She rejected excessive distortion, dismissing it as a "noisy show rather than a subtle suggestion," and adding that the artist "has only to look at . . . people with sympathy and translate them into art just as tragic and humorous as he may wish."
In 1933 one of her watercolors was included in the influential First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Sculpture, Watercolors, and Prints at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Between 1934 and 1939 Dwight worked for two arts projects sponsored by the federal Works Project Administration, one of the New Deal agencies established during the Roosevelt administration. Her initial job, which Seidenberg helped her get, rescued her from dire economic straits. As the depression wore on, Dwight's political views became increasingly radical, and she became associated with a variety of left-wing causes and groups. At the same time, her artistic reputation burgeoned. Her prints were widely shown, and she had two one-woman shows, in 1932 and 1938, at New York's Weyhe Gallery. In 1939, art critic Thomas Craven's Treasury of American Prints cited her as one of the "foremost living American artists." She was praised for her keen wit and artistry.
Dwight's health declined rapidly in the 1940s, and by the end of the decade she was confined to convalescent homes. She died, following a stroke, on September 4, 1955, in Colmat, Pennsylvania. Today her works are in the collections of New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, London's Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Tamarind Institute of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In 1949, her lifelong friend and curator of prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Carl Zigrosser provided an apt evaluation of Mabel Dwight's body of work. He wrote in American Artist that she was a master of the comédie humaine, by which he meant an artist whose work "probes into the depths" of the drama of everyday human life, "ever imbued with pity and compassion, a sense of irony, and an understanding that comes from profound experience."
A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts, A to Z of Women
Primarily a printmaker, Mabel Dwight created images that established her as a noted satirist of contemporary American life. Born Mabel Jacque Williamson, Dwight emerged as an artist relatively late in life. She spent her youth in New Orleans and California and began her studies in 1897 at San Francisco's Mark Hopkins Institute of Art (now the San Francisco Art Institute); she then traveled extensively in Egypt, Ceylon, India, and Java. In 1903 she settled into the New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village, a bohemian enclave of artists, writers, and intellectuals. Dwight married social realist painter and printmaker Eugene Higgins (1874-1958) in 1906 and spent much of the next decade actively championing left-wing politics and her husband's art. The couple separated in 1917, and the following year she became the secretary for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's newly established Studio Club, an organization for promoting modern American art that evolved into the present-day Whitney Museum of American Art. She also participated in its life drawing sessions, annual exhibitions, and artist community. Following her divorce from Higgins in 1921, she adopted the name Dwight; its origin is unknown.
In 1926-27, Dwight lived in Paris, where she made her first lithographs at the Atelier Duchâtel. Her first solo exhibition, featuring recent prints and drawings, took place at the Weyhe Gallery in New York in 1928. Lithography became Dwight's primary medium; she would make 111 editioned lithographs in the course of her career. In her scenes of ordinary life, she compassionately parodied the foibles of fellow Americans, particularly New Yorkers. She also created images critical of Fascism and injustice. During the depression, she produced many prints under the auspices of federal artists' relief projects. By that time, Dwight had found support from both private collectors and museums. Her artistic activity waned with her declining health after 1941. Dwight spent her last years writing her autobiography, which was never published.
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