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Leon Dabo
Dabo in 1909, photo by E.O. Hoppé
Born July 9, 1865(1865-07-09)
Paris, France
Died November 7, 1960 (aged 95)
New York, New York
Nationality  United States
Field Painting
Movement Tonalism
Influenced by John LaFarge, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Awards 1934, made Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur, France

Leon Dabo (July 9, 1865[N 1] – November 7, 1960) was an American tonalist landscape artist best known for his paintings of New York, particularly the Hudson Valley. His paintings were known for their feeling of spaciousness, with large areas of the canvas that had little but land, sea, or clouds.[8] During his peak, he was considered a master of his art, earning praise from such luminaries as John Spargo, Bliss Carman, Benjamin De Casseres, Edwin Markham, and Anatole Le Braz.[9] His brother, Scott Dabo, was also a noted painter.



Dabo, the eldest of three brothers (he also had five sisters), was born in Paris, France.[10][11] His father Ignace Scott Dabo was a professor of aesthetics and a classical scholar, who moved the family to Detroit, Michigan in 1871 to escape the Franco-Prussian War.[12] He supplemented Dabo's formal education with Latin, French, and drawing. After his father's death in 1883, the Dabo family moved to New York City, whereupon he found a job as an architectural designer, working to support the family so that his younger brother Scott, who was considered the talented one, could focus on his art.[8] He then became a student of John LaFarge, and the two of them would remain close friends until LaFarge's death. When Dabo decided to pursue studies in Paris, LaFarge wrote letters of introduction, enabling Dabo to meet Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, who would become his mentor, and to gain entry to the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs. He also studied part-time at the Académie Colarossi and the École des Beaux-Arts. Although Impressionism was gaining hold at this time, Dabo did not find that movement to his taste.[13]

Dabo also studied briefly at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich, but the nascent form of German Expressionism did not appeal to him and he moved on to Italy, where he stayed for three years. This was followed by a year in Nancy, France, studying color with Émile Lauge, a physicist. Finally, he spent some time in London around 1886, where he made the acquaintance of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who also apparently was a fellow student of Dabo's father at Gleyre's.[14] Whistler would have a profound influence on Dabo's style.[12]

While in London, Dabo met Mary Jane "Jennie" Ford, they married in 1889 and the couple had two children: Madeleine Helen (b. 1891), Leon Ford "George" (b. 1892),[1] [15] Leon and Jennie would separate in the 1920s. After Jennie's death in 1945, Dabo officially married his "wife" since the 1930s, Stephanie Ofenthal.[6]

He returned in New York in 1890 and began his career as a muralist, but by the beginning of the 20th century had turned to painting landscapes instead. For years, Dabo's paintings were rejected for exhibition by the major juries of the United States, until respected French painter Edmond Aman-Jean recognized his talents and began showing Dabo's work in France, whereupon he became a major success.[8] His work was on display in museums all around the world, including Musée du Luxembourg, the National Gallery of Canada, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.[5] Noted critics such as Sadakichi Hartmann, Royal Cortissoz and J. Nilson Laurvik showered praise on his paintings.[16]

Evening on the Hudson (1909), oil on canvas. This painting won a prize from the National Arts Club.

As Dabo's success grew, it was met with by jealousy on the part of Scott. By all accounts, Leon consistently championed his brother's work and the two of them often exhibited together. He even held power of attorney to act as Scott's representative with prospective buyers in Europe. When Scott went to study in Paris in 1902, Leon wrote letters of introduction on his behalf. However, reviews in the press were usually more favorable to Leon, buyers were more interested in Leon's work, and it sold for more as well. Finally at one point, the youngest brother Louis returned from Europe with a new power of attorney statement placing himself in charge of Scott's work, charging that Leon had imitated Scott's style, undermined him with buyers, and misappropriated the proceeds from the sales of Scott's work. Although the Dabo sisters sided with Louis and Scott, Leon simply refuted the charges and The New York Times did not much stock into Louis' statements.[17][18]

Aligning himself with the insurgents of the art world, Dabo participated in the "Exhibition of Contemporary Art" at the National Arts Club in 1908.[19] Later that year he showed with the Allied Artists' Association, a newly organized artist group in London mounting non-juried exhibitions.[20] In 1909 he curated and participated in an art exhibition for the Rand School of Social Science[21] and in 1910, he participated in the "Exhibition of Independent Artists" held by members of the Ashcan School.[22] In that same year Dabo became the leader of The Pastellists, a somewhat radical artist exhibition society.[23] He was an initial exhibitor at the MacDowell Club in their non-juried exhibitions, the brainchild of the Ashcan School's Robert Henri.[24] A charter member of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors,[25] Dabo was a principal organizer of the International Exhibition of Modern Art. Now most often referred to as the Armory Show of 1913, Dabo hosted several of the earliest meetings in his studio,[16] although he was back in Europe before the show opened.[26]

During World War I, the multilingual Dabo went to France and offered his services to Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. He ended up serving as an officer in the French and British Armies successively and exposed a number of German spies, using his ear for dialect and accent. He even played the role of spy once, going behind German lines to gain information.[5] For the U.S., he was part of a commission that investigated alleged atrocities that happened in France during the course of the war, and reported that they were indeed true.[27] He was commissioned as a captain in the United States Army and served as an interpreter for the American Expeditionary Force[28] as well as an aide-de-camp to Major General Mark L. Hersey of the 4th Infantry Division.[29]

After the war, his artistic output decreased. He began to feel that American men had become too materialistic, but women, he felt, were of a more spiritual nature, and could "save" art from indifference. As a result, he became a popular lecturer, often speaking to as many as fifteen women's clubs a month on art all around the country.[5]

In the 1920s, he taught and painted in various artists' colonies in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. Starting in 1933, he began to exhibit flower paintings and pastels, a departure from the landscapes with which he had become associated. They were well received, with The New York Times saying the works were "a distinct contribution to be associated with the flower harmonies of Odilon Redon and of Fantin-Latour."[28]

In 1937, he returned to France and established a studio there, where he painted French landscapes. With war approaching, Dabo helped artists such as Walter Sickert and Fernand Léger transport their works out of the country to avoid their being confiscated. He escaped the German occupation of France in late 1940, through Portugal. After the war, he returned to France in 1948 and painted more landscapes, most notably of Montagne Sainte-Victoire. These paintings were highly received and he was invited to exhibit them at the "Painters of Mont Ste. Victoire: Tribute to Cézanne" show in 1951. That year, he returned the United States for the last time.[16]

Dabo died in Manhattan in 1960 at the age of 95. He is buried in Long Island National Cemetery.

Honors and associations


  1. ^ The year and location of his birth varies widely. Contemporaneous sources state he was born in Detroit in 1868,[1] in 1869,[2] in 1870,[3] or in Grosse Pointe in 1874.[4] A 1931 Time article even states that he was born into a French Canadian family.[5] His tombstone even has 1868 carved in it.[6] However, modern research has uncovered that he was born in Paris in 1865.[7]


  1. ^ a b Hamersly, Lewis Randolph; Leonard, John W.; Mohr, William Frederick; Knox, Herman Warren; Holmes, Frank R.; Downs, Winfield Scott (1907). Who's who in New York (City and State). L. R. Hamersly Co.. p. 371.  
  2. ^ "Dabo, Leon". New International Encyclopedia. 6. Dodd, Mead. 1914. pp. 428.  
  3. ^ Earle, Helen L. (editor) (1913). Biographical Sketches of American Artists. Michigan State Library. p. 62.  
  4. ^ Narodny, p. 33
  5. ^ a b c d "Simple Things". Time. May 25, 1931.,9171,787709,00.html. Retrieved 2008-12-11.  
  6. ^ a b "Leon Dabo". Find-a-Grave. Retrieved 2008-12-11.  
  7. ^ "Evening on the Hudson". Smithsonian Museum of Art. Retrieved 2008-12-11.  
  8. ^ a b c Pattison, James William (1907). "Leon Dabo — A Painter of Space". The World To-day: A Monthly Record of Human Progress (World Review Co.) 12: 76–82.  
  9. ^ Narodny, Ivan (1969). "Leon Dabo". American Artists. Ayer Publishing (reprint of 1930 edition). pp. 23–39. ISBN 0836913116.  
  10. ^ Ignatius Schott (Dabo) family, The 1880 U.S. Census, Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, p.64A
  11. ^ Sweeney, J. Gray (1987). Artists of Michigan from the Nineteenth Century. Muskegon Museum of Art. p.155
  12. ^ a b Merrill, Linda (editor) (2003). After Whistler: The Artist and His Influence on American Painting. Yale University Press. p. 168. ISBN 0300101252.,M1.  
  13. ^ Narodny, p. 34
  14. ^ Pennell, Joseph (1911). The Life of James McNeil Whistler, 5th Edition. J. B. Lippincott Company. p. 43.  
  15. ^ "BOY SPECULATOR SHOOTS HIMSELF". The New York Times. April 25, 1910. Retrieved 2009-02-03.  
  16. ^ a b c "Leon Dabo". Stillwell House Antiques. Retrieved 2008-12-11.  
  17. ^ "BROTHERS IN ART AT LOGGERHEADS". The New York Times. March 24, 1907. Retrieved 2008-12-11.  
  18. ^ "DABO FAMILY ROW ON BROTHER'S ART". The New York Times. March 26, 1907. Retrieved 2009-02-03.  
  19. ^ "ART EXHIBITS AT THE CLUBS," The Evening Mail (January 6, 1908) p.6
  20. ^ "THE LONDON SALON," The Queen (July 18, 1908) p.137
  21. ^ "NOTES OF THE ART WORLD" The New York Herald (May 14, 1909) p.9
  22. ^ "WITH THE INDEPENDENT ARTISTS," The Evening Mail (April 4, 1910) p.7
  23. ^ "PASTELLISTS," American Art Annual (1911) p.210
  24. ^ "A NEW TYPE OF EXHIBITION," The New York Times (October 29, 1911) 5:15
  25. ^ "ARTISTS IN REVOLT, FORM NEW SOCIETY". The New York Times. January 3, 1912. Retrieved 2009-02-03.  
  26. ^ Snow, Richard (December 11, 1988). "A GLEE IN CONNCTING [sic THINGS"]. The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-11.  
  27. ^ Current History. The New York Times Co.. 1918. p. 515.  
  28. ^ a b "Leon Dabo". The Cooley Gallery. Retrieved 2008-12-11.  
  29. ^ Bach, Christian Albert; Hall, Henry Noble (1920). The Fourth Division. United States Army. p. xv.  

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