Northern Michigan Art: Discovering Pioneer Abstract Painter Manierre

Northern Michigan Art: “Except to scholars of art, the name Manierre Dawson is largely unknown and is only recently finding its rightful place in history,” wrote Sharon Bluhm in her 2012 biography, Manierre Dawson: Inventions of the Mind. Bluhm isn’t a historian or author; rather, she is an English professor from West Shore Community College who happened to stumble upon an English Tudor nestled between two hills near Ludington in 1976.

She fell in love with the place and put in an offer on the spot. Not long after she bought it, neighbors started asking her if she knew about the artist who had lived there. She wouldn’t learn until years later that her home (nicknamed the “Humps” by the Dawsons) held a story about an individual whose art was pioneering, yet is virtually unknown.

Manierre (his maternal grandfather’s last name) was born in Chicago in 1887 as the second of four sons of an ambitious, educated couple. His father bought farm property near Ludington a few miles east of Lake Michigan as a summer retreat, which Manierre especially loved to visit. An artistic boy, he painted scenes of the surrounding landscape as well as helped design the family homestead (pictured below) and renovate the 1858 log cabin on the property. He took his first and only art class at 17, solidifying his love of painting. Pressured by his father to learn a professional trade, he studied civil engineering instead of art, though he never stopped painting. He began his career at a Chicago architecture firm, painting feverishly in his spare time.

The year 1910 was a turning point. In early spring, he started painting completely abstract, non-representational work; and in the spring, he left for a six-month tour of Europe to study the art masters. The experience left an indelible imprint, bolstering his confidence to continue his new, experimental style of painting.

In 1913, Dawson was invited to show his work at the New York Armory Show, a modern art exhibition where Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne first exhibited for a wide audience in the United States. He was a perfectionist, and knowing that he had stored his best paintings in the Ludington summer home, he passed on the opportunity. When the show traveled to Chicago, an organizer entered Dawson’s work after borrowing a painting from the family home. Dawson was thrilled not only to see the other artists’ experimental works, but also to discover that his abstract style was part of a bigger movement. Unfortunately, the media scorned the radical art. Invited to submit for another exhibition, he was determined to show one of his best paintings, even if it meant traveling to Ludington in the winter to fetch it from storage. He took a train to Pentwater, since ferries weren’t running, and walked nine miles to the farm and back to grab a painting, arriving at the train station with minutes to spare.