Dickinson was born in 1889 in New York. He traced his interest in art to his father, an amateur painter who earned a living as a calligrapher and interior decorator. Dickinson attended the Art Students League between 1906 and 1910 where he studied under William Merritt Chase, the renowned American Impressionist painter. With the assistance of philanthropist Henry Barbey and future dealer Charles Daniel, Dickinson was able to live in Paris from 1910 to 1914; there he enrolled in the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian and exhibited in the Salon des Artistes Françaises and the Salon des Indépendants.
Dickinson’s earliest Precisionist works, a style of early twentieth century painting that depicted scenes of modern architecture and industry, first appeared in 1914. These early works are clarified to basic geometric shapes and rendered with a combination of abstraction and realism reminiscent of the cubism of Juan Gris. Over the course of the next nine years, Dickinson’s work was a personal and often idiosyncratic investigation of a variety of artistic idioms, including the painting style of Paul Cézanne, Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, and futurism. Yet, despite this eclecticism, Dickinson clearly enjoyed the geometry, ambiguous space, and multiple viewpoints of cubism. The Phillips Collection owns three oil paintings, one watercolor, and two pastels by Dickinson.
After a long struggle with various health problems, including alcoholism, Dickinson died in 1930 at the age of 41. Duncan Phillips admired Dickinson’s art and in 1931 gave him his first solo museum exhibition, albeit posthumously. Identifying the artist’s occasional proclivity for calculation and decorative arrangements, Phillips also pointed to the high quality of his best works: “It was only when he was truly inspired by his themes that he simplified and clarified the essentials and became lyrical or dramatic in spite of his obvious desire to be an impersonal virtuoso in his technical approach. During the comparative few years of his maturity as an artist he made a genuine impression on discriminating critics. His early loss was a tragedy. And yet his honored place in the history of American painting may, because of it, be all the more secure.”