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Denman Ross and American Design Theory

Marie Frank

Publication Year: 2011

In this masterful intellectual and cultural biography of Denman Ross (1853-1935), the American design theorist, educator, art collector, and painter who taught at Harvard for over 25 years, Marie Frank has produced a significant artistic resurrection. An important regional figure in Boston's fine arts scene (he remains one of the largest single donors to the collections of the MFA to this day), Ross was a friend and colleague of Arthur Wesley Dow, Bernard Berenson, Jay Hambidge, and others. He gained national and international renown with his design theory, which ushered in a shift from John Ruskin's romantic naturalism to the formalist aesthetic that characterizes modern art and architecture. Ross's theory attracted artists, Arts and Crafts artisans, and architects, and helped shape architectural education, scholarship, and museum practices. This biography of an important intellectual figure is also a fascinating and illuminating guide to a pivotal point in American cultural history and a reminder of the days when Boston was America's salon.

Published by: University Press of New England

Title Page

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List of Illustrations

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pp. vi-viii

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pp. ix-xi

One of the pleasures of this project has been the opportunity to work with colleagues who so willingly shared their expertise and time. Librarians and archivists all seem to have a special gene that inspires them to go beyond the call of duty in ferreting out information and following up on very specific (and often very tedious!) questions. My thanks must begin with Susan Von...

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pp. 1-17

In his classes on design theory at Harvard University, Denman Waldo Ross (1853–1935) often gave his students exercises with the design elements of dots, lines, shapes, and color. One student, William Sumner Appleton, turned in an assignment on ‘‘tone synthesis’’ that depicted a series of variously colored inset squares (see plate 1). With each square he explored the...

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1. Formative Years

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pp. 18-52

A casual glance at some of the significant dates in Denman Ross’s long and active life tempts us to think of him as a twentieth-century figure. He published his first book, A Theory of Pure Design, in 1907, followed by On Drawing and Painting in 1912 and The Painter’s Palette in 1919; he taught at Harvard from 1899 through the 1920s; and he worked with the young Jack Levine and...

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2. The Theory of Pure Design

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pp. 53-102

Ross pinpointed the 1890s as a crucial decade in the consolidation of his thoughts on design. He never abandoned Ruskin, Norton, or Jarves, but his own inclinations led him to weigh certain aspects of their teaching more heavily than others. Ross’s fascination with the way an artist transformed his or her idea into a physical object resulted in a greater preoccupation with the...

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3. Science, Psychology, and Formalist Aesthetics

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pp. 103-134

McGee could also have added aesthetics to his alliterative list of industries: science played an important part in the transformation of Ruskinian attitudes in American aesthetic thought. Norton had absolutely no sympathy for the presence of scientific methods in the humanities—he detested the use of scientific realism in contemporary novels and warned against its...

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4. Geometry, Pure Design, and Dynamic Symmetry

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pp. 135-171

The experiments in physiological psychology demonstrated the links between the visual perception of form, the mind, and mathematical laws and thereby reaffirmed Ross’s belief that geometry had a fundamental place in design theory. His promotion of geometry contributed to the resurgent attention to proportion that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth...

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5. Ross’s Course at Harvard

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pp. 172-214

In 1899, Ross embarked upon a long teaching career at Harvard University. He joined the department of architecture in the fall and remained there until 1909, when his course moved to the department of fine arts. He continued to teach into the early 1920s and remained actively involved with the department and the Fogg Art Museum until his death in 1935. To teach his theory of...

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6. Teaching the Theory of Pure Design: Art Educators, Artisans, and the Public

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pp. 215-242

Ross’s basic supposition, that the study of design activated and strengthened faculties of the mind, led him to extend his efforts in a number of directions with demonstrable effect. Through his summer school course, he reached an additional audience that included art educators, design instructors, artists, artisans, and amateurs. Many of the art educators lived and worked in the...

Image Plates

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pp. 243-254

By the 1920s, Ross’s design theory had found a place with architects, architectural educators, artists, art educators, curators, city planners like John Nolen, and historic preservationists like William Sumner Appleton. Furthermore, Ross’s efforts were no isolated phenomenon—as each chapter has suggested, his interest in design led him into conversation with others such...

Appendix: Letter from Denman Waldo Ross to John Walker

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pp. 255-257


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pp. 259-286


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pp. 287-303


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pp. 305-321

E-ISBN-13: 9781611680126
E-ISBN-10: 1611680123

Page Count: 344
Publication Year: 2011