Painter, printmaker, photographer, and educator. Through his book Composition (1899) and his systematic teaching methods, he encouraged individual expression within an aesthetic of simplicity, harmony, and reverence for natural form. In the process, he significantly enlarged the scope of decorative sources available to artists and artisans in the United States. He particularly drew on Japanese principles of design in formulating his emphasis on line, color, and equilibrium between light and dark masses. While contributing to the Arts and Crafts movement, his efforts also spurred development of modernist ideas about the priority of abstract form and pictorial structure. An idealist, he believed that beauty, the mark of art's spiritual value, could be realized in any medium and should become part of everyday life within reach of a wide public. Born in Ipswich, Dow grew up there, on the Massachusetts coast north of Boston. Upon completing high school, he became a teacher, while continuing his studies informally and developing an antiquarian interest in local craft traditions. Around 1880 he took up painting. Inspired in part by an acquaintance with Frank Duveneck, in the fall of 1884 Dow departed for Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian. During his years abroad, interrupted by a trip home in 1887, he spent periods of time working at the artists' colony of Pont Aven in Brittany but seems not to have been susceptible at this point to the art of Gauguin and other postimpressionists there. He returned to Ipswich in 1889 but a year later took a studio in Boston. There he focused on landscapes in a style reflecting Barbizon scenes but also explored the arts of non-Western cultures. Although the vogue for japonisme had been under way in both France and the United States for some years, until 1891 Dow did not respond enthusiastically to the Japanese prints that became the touchstone of his mature aesthetic. Soon after, he became acquainted with the Museum of Fine Art's Ernest Fenollosa, whose views on Asian art he adopted as his own. From 1893 Dow, too, held curatorial positions at the museum for several years.
In the decisive year of 1891 Dow also established the Ipswich Summer School of Art, which he continued to direct (except for one season) until 1907. Putting into practice his innovative teaching methods, he encouraged students to explore crafts media as well as the traditional fine arts. In 1895 he took a position at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute and three years later began teaching at the Art Students League as well. When Composition was published, his impact on the education of artists, photographers, and designers expanded beyond his personal sphere. Following a trip around the world through Asia to Europe in 1903 and 1904, he consolidated his reputation as the country's leading art educator while serving as art department head at the influential Teachers College of Columbia University. Later in life he traveled to the West on several occasions, finding subjects for his art and photography in California and especially at the Grand Canyon. He died in New York. Although Dow's principles and educational methods exerted a decisive influence on the development of American art (Georgia O'Keeffe and Max Weber numbered among admirers), Dow's personal expression did not present radical innovations. In the context of the period's impressionist and postimpressionist tendencies, his gentle and romantic landscape paintings remained relatively conservative. However, Dow's prints and photographs contributed to more progressive currents. The notable color woodcuts he began producing in the early 1890s masterfully exploit flat pattern, asymmetrical balance, and subtle tonalities in the depiction of landscape or other natural motifs. Dow first took up photography in the 1880s, but his most active use of this medium dates from the years between about 1890 and 1912. Combining abstract composition with particular features of landscapes or picturesque sites, his photographic work contributed to the flowering of pictorialism. He directly influenced a number of its well-known practitioners, especially Alvin Langdon Coburn.