Jonas Lie
(1880 - 1940)

By the Docks

Jonas Lie was born in Norway, and lived there until the death of his father at the age of twelve. He was sent to live with his uncle in Paris, a distinguished poet and novelist with the same name, but reunited with his mother, an American woman from Hartford, Connecticut, and sisters in New York the following year. He later enrolled at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League.

While seascapes and scenes of water stand out as a favorite theme, biographers and critics of Lie make mention of his early training, painting urban motif such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the city’s skyscrapers; Lorinda Munson Bryants attributes his “astonishing insight into the artistic value of vertical lines” to this experience (1). The artist’s affinity for a clean contrast of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines appears in By the Docks in the details; the viewer is immediately introduced to this element with the two boats beside the dock in the foreground. These lines also contribute to the sense of depth in the painting. With a light infused palette dominated by cool tones, he utilized broad avenues of pigment and decisive brushwork to create an incomplex yet striking composition. “The very simplicity of his treatment gives to his canvases a power and a charm which a different technique could not impart” (2).

His familiarity with infrastructure became evident once again as an observer and visual recorder of the building of the Panama Canal in 1913; he was impressively able to:

convey a genuine sense of the vastness and the splendor of the undertaking there … Two qualities stand out – the artist’s dramatic interpretation of industrial activity, and his fine sense of color, which have led him to express beauty where many another might have expressed only strength (3).

This series of paintings, exhibited in 1914, was considered his “major breakthrough” as an American artist, although his artwork was continually acclaimed throughout his career (4). Between 1905 and 1938 Lie had fifty-seven one-man shows, each including between twelve to forty-five paintings. He participated in annual and biennial exhibitions at the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, as well as a number of world fairs. In 1934 Lie was the first foreign-born person to be elected president of the National Academy. He resigned in 1939, and passed away the next year.


1. Lorinda Munson Bryant, American Pictures and their Painters (New York: John Lane Company, 1917)
2. W.H.N. “A Painter of Panama: Jonas Lie” in The International Studio, vol. 51, no. 201 (November 1913), cxciv.
3. Pan American Union, Union of American Republics, "Jonas Lie's Paintings of the Panama Canal" in Bulletin of the Pan American Union, January - June 1914, vol 38, 679.
4. Dina Tolfsby, “Jonas Lie: Norwegian Silver in the American Melting Pot” in Norwegian-American Essays 2004, vol. 11 (Norwegian-American Historical Association), 285-311.




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