Unidentified photographer, Dorothy Dehner, 1959. Courtesy of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation.
Dorothy Dehner, Letter, 1953. Etching, aquatint, and roulette, plate: 4 7/8 x 6 7/8 in. (12.5 x 17.6 cm). Courtesy Dolan/Maxwell, Philadelphia, PA. Courtesy of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation.

22. Dorothy Dehner

Life Dates1901-1994
Place of BirthCleveland, OH, USA
Place of DeathNew York, NY, USA
Birth NameDorothy Dehner

Dorothy Dehner was born 1901 in Cleveland, Ohio. Although Dehner’s parents and siblings all died before she reached the age of seventeen, family was nonetheless a major influence on her life’s creative ambitions and her belief in women’s capacity for individual achievement. Her mother and father, and eventually the aunts who helped to raise her after her mother’s death in 1917, modeled behaviors and ideologies that were significant to the young Dehner. Her father, the owner of a Cleveland pharmacy shop, was also intellectually creative and wrote short stories, albeit unpublished.1 Importantly, her mother was involved in the pacifist movement and was part of the first wave of activism for American women’s right to vote, though she would die before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.2 Her mother’s sisters, Flo and Cora Uphof, were also significant role models. They were quite different—Cora, the globetrotter who for twenty years lived a glamorous life abroad, and Flo the more grounded aunt who raised Dehner after she lost her nuclear family. The sisters, like Dehner’s mother, had musical backgrounds, having graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, which fostered Dehner’s early interest in music, dance, and theater.3

Dehner’s earliest creative expression involved some stage performance and dabbling in the visual arts. Her art classes in both elementary and high school were quite progressive for the first decades of the twentieth century and included modernist activities such as tearing paper and collaging it to make abstract designs.4 With her mother, sister and aunts, Dehner relocated to Pasadena, California, in 1915. While she attended high school and during the one semester she spent at the University of California, Los Angeles, Dehner performed with an acting troupe that would go onto start the Pasadena Playhouse.5 For a young woman who had already experienced quite a bit of freedom and had exposure to liberal philosophies from her parents and adult guardians, college was not rewarding; she chafed at the conformity, saying “It was too square for me,” and ultimately joined a sorority just to fit in.6 She remained in California for a short time longer, acting and studying dance and piano, and then made the decision to strike out on her own: initially to New York City in 1922 and, after a couple years of performing in plays and attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (academic year 1923-24), she ventured off to Europe in 1925 which she noted was vibrating with “new” expression.7 She spent a few months in Florence where she saw work by Old Masters at the same time she attended a performance by the German dancer and pioneer of expressionist movement, Mary Wigman (1886-1973).8 Travel to Paris was exhilarating, too. She caught the l’Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which promoted the new Style Moderne or Art Deco, and also saw artwork by the Cubists and Fauves. Returning to New York in September 1925, she resolved to be a visual artist.

She immediately registered for classes at the Art Students League.9 Although initially planning to study sculpture, she found the teaching of the League’s two instructors—William Zorach and Robert Laurent—less innovative and avant-garde than what she had seen in Paris. Instead she enrolled in drawings and painting classes with Kimon Nicolaïdes and Kenneth Hayes Miller. Though neither were particularly stimulating to Dehner’s modernist interests, Nicolaïdes was instrumental in teaching Dehner to successfully draw the objects she saw. Soon thereafter, she found her way to Jan Matulka (1890-1972), the Czech-American whose deep, personal exposure to European modernism appealed to Dehner. Like others in the class, she experimented with semi-abstraction using oil paint thickened with an array of materials (sand, cement, pebbles, coffee grounds) and related to Matulka on a personal level, having coffee near the League and going to his house for dinner. She and a dedicated cohort of students—among them David Smith, Burgoyne Diller, Edgar Levy, Irene Rice Pereira, Mary Lorenc, and Jim Robertson—would continue studying with Matulka even after he was pushed out of his position at the League in 1931.

Along with Matulka’s classes at the League, Dehner’s courtship and marriage to David Smith in December 1927 inaugurated several “exciting and very yeasty” years.10 As the two artists pursued their own work, they were key members of the city’s bohemian community and developed close friendships with several artists and critics. Through friends Weber and Thomás Furlong, for example, Smith and Dehner met the influential avant-garde painter and theoretician John Graham (1886-1961) who would be a major figure in both artists’ lives. (The Furlongs also introduced Smith and Dehner to Bolton Landing in upstate New York where they bought a farmhouse in 1929, spending summers there until 1940 when they moved there fulltime.)

Dehner and Smith traveled extensively together in early years of their marriage. Between October 1931 and June 1932, they lived on the island of St. Thomas in an attempt to follow Paul Gauguin’s example in the South Pacific. Dehner’s work during this sojourn mostly consisted of abstractions of the surrounding landscape and its flora and fauna. In the fall of 1935, the couple went to Europe, visiting Paris, Greece, Italy, London, and Russia before returning the following July.11 It was during this trip that Dehner and Smith met Stanley William Hayter, likely through John Graham’s introduction to the Surrealist community.12 While Smith chose to study with Hayter, Dehner was intimidated about working at the printmaking studio, likely a result of feeling insecure among the caliber of surrealist artists in residence.

Upon their return to New York, Dehner increasingly struggled to reconcile her role as a wife with her professional aspirations. Although she maintained her studio practice and her intellectual engagement with liberal causes (both she and Smith were supporters of the Communist Party USA), Dehner had trouble accepting her progressively secondary position in her marriage supporting Smith as his career advanced rapidly. Important scholars of Dehner’s life like Joan Marter and Paula Wisotzki have masterfully shown the dissonances and disadvantages that the artist grappled with, including those specific to her situation (a miniscule studio space at Bolton Landing, competition with Smith, and his often violent, emotional outbursts) and more global, societal issues for women artists in general (discrimination in the gallery system, regulations that prevented her from participating in the WPA over Smith who was considered the “head of household”).13 Despite these issues, the 1940s were a period of greater professionalization for Dehner. She began to enter her work—mostly drawings, watercolors, and small egg tempera paintings—in juried exhibitions locally in New York and “out of town,” to use Dehner’s words.14 In 1948, she had her first solo show at Skidmore College, which featured mostly abstract watercolors and drawings. The solo show combined with these group exhibitions gave Dehner professional momentum and confidence that she, too, could succeed as an artist.

An incident of physical violence in the fall of 1950 precipitated Dehner’s final separation from Smith (they also had a break in 1945 after a similar event). In this post-separation period, Dehner worked towards self-sufficiency—earning a bachelor of science from Skidmore College in June 1952 and teaching art at several programs—as she continued to paint and exhibit.15 Peter Grippe’s invitation to work at Atelier 17 came at an opportune moment for her personally and professionally. While Dehner at age fifty-one was already extremely well versed in avant-garde ideas and modernist self-expression, making prints at Atelier 17 reignited her early artistic attraction to working in three dimensions. The process of carving into the metal plate or etching out deeply bitten areas, as seen in prints like Letter, spurred her transition to sculpture, which was her exclusive focus for the remainder of her life. The artistic community at the printmaking workshop was also quite impactful. She became intrigued by fellow member David Slivka’s work in the lost wax technique and, after he declined to give her lessons, she sought instruction at the Sculpture Center, a member-based sculpture workshop and gallery space, and quickly made about a hundred sculptures.16 Aspects of her mature sculptural process show the influence of Dehner learning to carve with a burin.

Atelier 17 is also where she met lifelong friends like Louise Nevelson; they met after Dehner admired Nevelson’s darkly printed sheets hanging from across the Atelier 17 studio.17 She maintained friendships with other Atelier 17 alumnae, such as Doris Seidler and Worden Day.


Dorothy Dehner Papers, 1920–1987 (bulk 1951–1987), Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Selected Bibliography

Dehner, Dorothy. “Memories of Jan Matulka.” In Jan Matulka, 1890-1972, 77–80. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980.

Glaubinger, Jane. Dorothy Dehner: Drawings, Prints, Sculpture. Cleveland, OH: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1995.

Marter, Joan. Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art. Katonah, NY: Katonah Museum of Art, 1993.

Marter, Joan, and Richard L. Eagan. Dorothy Dehner: Heroic Sculpture. New York: Twining Gallery, 1990.

Marter, Joan, and Sandra Kraskin. Dorothy Dehner: A Retrospective of Sculpture, Drawings and Paintings. New York: Baruch College/The City University of New York, 1991.

Marter, Joan, Judith McCandless, and Michael Zakian. Dorothy Dehner and David Smith: Their Decades of Search and Fulfillment. New Brunswick, NJ: The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 1983.

McCandless, Judith. “Dorothy Dehner: Life-Line in Sculpture.” Whitney Museum Independent Study, 1974.

Schwartz, Alexandra. David Smith: The Prints. New York: Pace Prints, 1987.

Teller, Susan. Dorothy Dehner: A Retrospective of Prints. New York: Associated American Artists, 1987.

Tornai, Esther Flora. “The Sculpture of Dorothy Dehner: The Abstract Expressionist Work.” PhD diss., Yale University, 1999.

Weeren-Griek, Hans van. Dorothy Dehner, Ten Years of Sculpture. New York: The Jewish Museum, 1965.

Wisotzki, Paula. “Americans Abroad: The 1930s, Politics, and the Experience of Europe.” Southwestern College Art Review XV, no. 5 (2010): 584–97.

———. “Dorothy Dehner and World War II: Not Just Life on the Farm.” Archives of American Art Journal 55, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 5–25.


  1. Judith McCandless, “Dorothy Dehner: Life-Line in Sculpture” (Whitney Museum Independent Study, 1974), Dorothy Dehner Papers, 1920–1987 (bulk 1951–1987), Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., reel 1260:237 [henceforth cited as DDP].
  2. In much of the scholarship on Dehner’s life, it is often reported that her mother died in 1916. According to the California, Death Index, 1905-1939 (accessed via Ancestry.com), Lulu B. Dehner died on October 28, 1917.
  3. Dorothy Dehner, interview by unknown interviewer, DDP, reel 796:641.
  4. Dehner interview, DDP, reel 796:639-40.
  5. Organized in 1917, the acting troupe was alternatively called the Gimour Brown Players (after its founder) or the Pasadena Community Players. The Pasadena Playhouse opened in 1924, long after Dehner had left Southern California. According to the registrar’s records, Dehner attended the University of California, Los Angeles for only the fall semester of 1921.
  6. Dehner interview, DDP, reel 796:642.
  7. Joan Marter, Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Art (Katonah, NY: Katonah Museum of Art, 1993), 6–7.
  8. Dorothy Dehner to Margaret Haggerty, September 1967, DDP, reel 796:609.
  9. Dehner’s registration cards at the Art Students League of New York are missing. For the best summary of her time at the League, see Dorothy Dehner, “Memories of Jan Matulka,” in Jan Matulka, 1890-1972 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980), 77–80.
  10. McCandless, “Dorothy Dehner: Life-Line in Sculpture,” DDP, reel 1269:243.
  11. For more on their European sojourn, see Paula Wisotzki, “Americans Abroad: The 1930s, Politics, and the Experience of Europe,” Southwestern College Art Review XV, no. 5 (2010): 584–97.
  12. Graham brought Dehner and Smith to a surrealist exhibition at the home of poet Paul Éluard, who was close friends with Hayter. McCandless, DDP, reel 1269:248.
  13. Joan Marter, Judith McCandless, and Michael Zakian, Dorothy Dehner and David Smith: Their Decades of Search and Fulfillment (New Brunswick, NJ: The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 1983), 24–25; Paula Wisotzki, “Dorothy Dehner and World War II: Not Just Life on the Farm,” Archives of American Art Journal 55, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 16.
  14. Dehner maintained lists of some of these shows in DDP, reel 796:1598. For discussion of Dehner’s exhibiting at this time, see Wisotzki, “Dorothy Dehner and WWII,” 18 and 25, n. 43.
  15. The dates of Dehner’s attendance at Skidmore were February 1951 to June 1952, and she majored in Fine and Applied Art. Jean M. Lambert (Skidmore registrar’s office) email to Christina Weyl, December 20, 2016. Some of the places Dehner taught included Indian Hill in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a New York State Extension Program at Haverstraw, New York, and the Barnard School for Girls in New York City. McCandless, “Dorothy Dehner: Life-Line in Sculpture,” DDP, reel 1269:255.
  16. Dehner interview, DDP, reel 796:648-49.
  17. Dorothy Dehner, interview by Laurie Wilson, June 17, 1977. Courtesy Laurie Wilson.