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Dale William Nichols (1904 -1995)

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

The Red Barn: Plowing, 1935, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches, signed and dated lower left


About the Painting

The Red Barn: Plowing, from 1935, is a prime example of the artistic principles Dale Nichols followed through much of his career. Nichols developed a series of guidelines for the development and execution his compositions, the result of which were carefully crafted, ordered, stylized and pared down regionalist scenes of his native Midwest. Compositions like The Red Barn: Plowing do not portray the reality of Nebraska’s Depression Era farms, but they present us with an idealized and highly designed notion of what the landscape should look like when sculpted by light and devoid of distracting details. In Nichols' hands, the landscape takes on a mythic quality representing nature itself. Nichols wrote that he was obedient to Natural Law and that the resulting works were a “synthetic representation” of the things painted. When applied successfully, Nichols’ believed his artistic principles would tap into underlying truths about beauty and human emotion to create “superreal” works of art. Like his Missouri neighbor, Thomas Hart Benton, Nichols was a thoroughly modern painter wrapped in the veneer of the American Scene. As Amanda Mobley Guenther wrote in her monograph on the artist, Dale Nichols Transcending Regionalism, for Nichols, the key principle to his practice was to “paint the light.” In The Red Barn: Plowing, we see the beauty that results.

About the Artist

Iowa had Grant Wood. Missouri had Thomas Hart Benton. Kansas had John Stuart Curry. And, Nebraska had Dale Nichols. Although not as well known as the big three regionalists who captured America’s artistic attention during the 1930s, Dale Nichols was an important chronicler of his home state as well as the broader Midwest. Born in the tiny town of David, Nebraska, Nichols came from a loving family who supported his artistic ambitions as much as they expected him to work hard on the family farm for much of the first twenty years of his life. In 1924, Nichols decamped to Chicago and spent a few months at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts before deciding that real world illustration and graphic arts experience would serve him well. Nichols worked as a commercial artist for fifteen years as his fine art career advanced. In 1934, his painting, End of the Hunt, won the William Randolph Hearst Prize at the Chicago Art Institute and the painting was later purchased by, and remains in the collection of, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The following year, when he painted The Red Barn: Plowing, Nichols published his first book, Philosophy of Esthetics, which began to set forth the design principles that Nichols would follow through much of his career. In addition to painting his native Midwest, Nichols painted in Alaska, Arizona, and later in Mexico and Central America. Nichols exhibited extensively during the 1930s and 1940s, including at New York’s prominent MacBeth Gallery. In 1939 and 1940, Nichols served as artist-in-residence at the University of Illinois. He started working as an illustrator for Encyclopedia Britannica in 1943 and in 1945, he became its Art Director. Although Nichols painted many scenes of Central America, throughout his career, he often returned to the Midwestern landscape for inspiration, working and reworking compositions from his younger days. Nichols works are in the collections of many American institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Dayton Art Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Joslyn Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Williams College Art Museum, among many others. He is listed in Who was Who in American Art and all other standard references.


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