Adolf Dehn (1895-1968) was well-known for his drawings, lithographs and watercolors which satirically chronicled the social and political milieu of his times, as well as poetic landscapes, many of which depicted the rolling hills and farmlands of his native Midwest. Although he worked mostly in New York, Dehn also spent substantial time traveling and working in Europe, the Middle East, South America, and the American mid-west.
Dehn was born on a farm in Waterville, Minnesota on November 22, 1895, he began his formal art education in 1914 at the Minneapolis School of Art (currently known as the Minneapolis College of Art and Design). As a student, his drawings were featured in the school's humor journal, The Minne-Ha-Ha and by 1917 he had published his first drawing in one of his favorite political journals, The Masses. Later that year he and fellow Minneapolis School of Art student Wanda Gág were among a select group of art students nationwide who won scholarships to the Art Students League of New York. After only eight months in New York, however, Dehn was drafted into the Army to serve in the final months of World War I, but he proclaimed himself as a conscientious objector and was sent to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina for several months.
Dehn returned to New York, where his friend and mentor Boardman Robinson introduced him to lithography through the master printer George Miller and brought him to the Weyhe Gallery to meet Carl Zigrosser, an avid supporter of American printmakers. However, he soon left New York for Europe in September 1921 where he spent most of the following eight years. There he traveled with his sketchbooks to the cafes and opera houses of Berlin, Paris, and Vienna, as well as on hiking trips in the Alps. He became friends with the poet E.E. Cummings, Scofield Thayer, editor of The Dial, who published many of his drawings, and met the German artist, George Grosz, whose work he so admired. In addition to The Dial, his satirical drawings of jazz-age entertainments and European cafe life also appeared in , The Liberator, Jugend, Vanity Fair, and Simplicissimus. Finally during his stint in Europe, Dehn met and married the Russian dancer Mura Tsiperovitch. They were married in Vienna in 1926, but divorced sometime in the early 1930s.
Unfortunately Dehn's return to the United States coincided with the Great Depression of 1929 and sales of his work were slim. However in the 1930s, The New Yorker and Vogue began to publish his work. He continued to work in lithography and returned to Paris to work at the Atelier Desjobert, the print studio with whom he worked most closely throughout his life. In the late 1930s, Dehn began working in watercolors, mostly rural landscapes, and had a one man show of works in his new medium at Weyhe Gallery in 1938. In 1939 Dehn traveled through the Southwest and Mexico on his first Guggenheim Fellowship (he was awarded his second in 1951).
By the 1940s Dehn was an active member of both the American Artists Group and Associated American Artists; both organizations sought to popularize contemporary American Art, primarily through reproductions of fine art prints and commercial use of artists' designs on greeting card, calendars, and even wall paper. Appreciation for his lithographs and watercolors grew, and along with it his recognition. He also taught art classes a few summers; in the late 1930s at Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri where his friend Albert Janner-Christ was head of the art department and in the early 1940s at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, where friend and mentor Boardman Robinson was the director. In 1955 he published Watercolor, Gouache, and Casein Painting, a manual on technique. Throughout the rest of his life he continued to travel, not only returning to Europe, but also visiting Afganistan, Cuba, Haiti, and a trip to Venuzuala on assignment from Standard Oil to document the oil industry there. On many of his later trips, he was accompanied by his wife, fellow artist, Virginia Engleman Dehn, whom he had married in November 1947.
Near the end of his long career, Dehn was elected in 1961 to the National Academy of Design as a full academician. He was later elected to the National Academy of Arts and Letters. After his death in 1968, his wife Virginia worked with the University of Missouri Press on the catalog Adolf Dehn Drawings (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1971).