Although there are various legal documents sighting different years of birth for John D. Graham, we know that he was born in Kiev, on January 8 in the late 1880s. His given name was Ivan Gratianovich Dombrovski, but he would later anglicize his name upon becoming an American citizen in 1927. Graham is remembered for advancing Modernism in American art circles. He was revered by his colleagues as a connoisseur of art. While Graham was constantly experimenting and evolving, he is most closely associated with figure painting–often with the sitters with crossed eyes. His works range from realistic to very abstract.
Graham was born into a Russian family of minor nobility. He served as a cavalry officer in the Czar’s army in the Russian Revolution, but was imprisoned as a counter-revolutionary. He initially escaped to Poland, followed by France when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. About three years later he arrived in New York City. The decade of the 1920s are when Graham’s work ranges the most. It appears as though he was experimenting with many different styles, seeing as he had received no formal art training up until this point. In 1923 he enrolled at the Art Students League, New York, and briefly served as an assistant to John Sloan. He also published his first of several books this year, titled Have It!, a book of his poetry. In 1925 Graham participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 10th annual exhibition, and that same year he moved with his third wife (first American), and fellow artist, Elinor Gibson, to her hometown of Baltimore. In Baltimore, Graham met renowned art collector, Duncan Phillips, who in 1929 gave Graham his first solo exhibition at his gallery, Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C. Throughout the 1920s Graham continued to travel back and forth between Paris and the U.S., which set him up to be a sort of messenger between the American and European art worlds. He began to gain a sort of reputation as an “art connoisseur.” He helped American collectors to build their collections of art, most notably Vanity Fair editor, John Crowninshield’s famous collection of African Art. Graham advised him and made many of the purchases on Crowninshield’s behalf while in Paris. Graham even organized an exhibition of the collection at Jacques Selgimann Gallery in New York. In 1937 Graham published his best-known book, System and Dialects of Art, which outlined the influences of modernism, specifically ideas rooted in psychoanalytic theory. The book garnered much attention, and big fans such as a young Jackson Pollock. Graham went through many artistic evolutions throughout his lifetime, but by the early 1940s he had abandoned abstract art in favor of painting portraits and self-portraits in a more realist manner. He was greatly influenced by The Old Masters, specifically Poussin and Raphael. In 1942 he organized the exhibition “French and American Painters” at the McMillen Gallery. The exhibition featured Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Jackson Pollock, (longtime friend) Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning, in addition to several others. This exhibition has been cited as Pollock’s big break, and possibly where he met future wife, Lee Krasner. John D. Graham died in London in 1961, he has had retrospectives held at The Art Institute Chicago (1963), The Museum of Modern Art (1968), Museum of Fine Arts Houston (1969), and The Phillips Collection (1987). His works are in various permanent collections including, The Whitney Museum, New York and The Phillips Collection, D.C.