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Sometime in late 1944, the artist Maynard Dixon then living in Tucson, Arizona received a commission for a painting from an eastern collector. The result was Navajos in a Canyon, completed in 1945, one year before the painter’s death. As envisioned by Dixon, three riders and a small child ride on through a canyon floor, flanked by massive Navajo Sandstone cliffs. Like a number of his studio works this is an invented painting prompted by Dixon’s imagination and memories and could be anywhere in the sprawling Navajo reservation. The figures of the Navajo and their horses blend with their surroundings, the colorful clothing and the fragment of deep Southwestern sky serving as a counter point to the tan, orange, and russet-brown terrain. Angular shadows play on the cliffs creating an abstract interplay on the canvas giving the image an almost mural-like quality. Dixon used the silhouette to good effect, those lines that offer strength and character by projecting the figures against the stark cliffs.

From the time he first visited the Southwest in 1900 and until the 1940s, Dixon would create thousands of pencil, pen-and-ink, and small oil sketches, documenting his visits to the transitional cultures of Pima, Mohave, Maricopa, Pueblo, Apache, Hopi, and the Navajo on reservations, camps, and villages. The Navajo, in particular, became favorite subjects, starting with his visit to Hubbell’s Trading Post at Ganado, Arizona in 1902 then over the years to other locations such as Canyon de Chelly, Kayenta, Betatikin, Red Lake, Chinle, and unnamed areas known only to the Navajo. These accumulated experiences culminated in the rich color and strong modeling evident in Navajos in a Canyon, a canvas in which it seems that the artist has dipped his brush into the very soil of Navajo country.

Like a number of other large paintings done in the 1940s, this particular work was created in Dixon’s Tucson studio, starting with his review of drawings done on his frequent trips to the Navajo region. He would select several landscape and figurative drawings from his vast collection and from them compose a larger drawing which served as an embryo for the painting. In fact, the drawing for Navajos in a Canyon exists, an 8 × 10 pencil on paper marked by Dixon’s attempts to envision the utilization of space that would appear on the final canvas. (See Donald J. Hagerty, The Art of Maynard Dixon, Gibbs Smith, 2010, p.115, Figure 89) Shortly after World War I, although skeptical about the tenets of modern art, Dixon adapted his version of cubist realism based on Dynamic Symmetry, a mathematical approach to organizing space on a canvas. Although disdainful of the mathematical underpinnings he developed his own particular approach to the layout of a painting. Honed by almost two decades of experience with space division, he eliminated the unessential in the painting with a keen mind and sure hand, casting aside obstructive detail in the composition. An art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle once declared that one could tell a Maynard Dixon through a brick wall, a readily identifiable synthesis in his art as this painting testifies.

– Donald J. Hagerty
Author and noted authority on Maynard Dixon

Navajos in a Canyon is listed as number 736 in Maynard Dixon’s master painting list.

Titled, signed and inscribed “736/Tucson, Ariz”

Wesley M. Burnside, Maynard Dixon: Artist of the West, (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1974), page 146

Catherine L. Hyde, Hudson, Ohio, 1945
Present owner, by descent

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