Artist Dong Kingman's (1911–2000) name became synonymous with artwork that depicted a variety of urban cityscapes. In an article following Kingman's death, the San Francisco Chronicle declared, "Mr. Kingman's watercolors of San Francisco's cable cars and Golden Gate Bridge were nearly as popular as the landmarks themselves." Kingham worked mainly in watercolors, and his paintings are exhibited in museums across the country, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Moved from California to Hong Kong
Kingman was born Dong Moy Shu Kingman on March 31, 1911, in Oakland, California. He was the second of eight children born to immigrants from Hong Kong. His father was a laundryman who also owned and ran a dry goods store, and his mother was a housewife. It was not long after he was born that World War I started in Europe. At that time the draft was in effect, and there was no end in sight for the war, so the Kingman family moved back to Hong Kong because the parents did not want to risk the father being called to fight in the war. After they arrived in Hong Kong, Kingman's father took up what he had done in the United States, and he ran a successful department store in Hong Kong.
While he was living in Hong Kong, Kingman came to discover art at a relatively young age. He seemed to have a skill for it right from the start, and his mother encouraged his interest, pushing him to practice his drawing and painting. He was sent to the Lingnan Branch School when he was a teenager to study painting with the instructor Szetsu Wei, who was a well-known and highly respected Chinese painter. While he was there he studied not only traditional Chinese art, but also Western artists who had become masters in their respective fields. He especially studied the French Impressionists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, who were of particular interest to Kingman for their use of light in their paintings.
Moved Back to United States
In 1929, when Kingman was 18, he moved to the United States, where his family thought he would have a better chance to make something of his art. He moved to San Francisco, California, where he took on jobs such as working in a factory that his brother owned, or working in a restaurant, as well as working in several households for San Francisco families, doing odd jobs. No matter what he did to earn money, however, he kept in mind his reason for being there, and continued to pursue his art.
After a short time living like this, Kingman began submitting his work to group art shows, and it was while his work was being displayed in such a show that he came to public notice, and in 1936 he was hired as an artist by the federal government for the Works Progress Administration, a Great Depression program established by the New Deal. That same year Kingman held his first solo art show at the San Francisco Art Center. The show was well-received and garnered good reviews, and Kingman's name began to be known throughout the art world. He was so well thought of that he was offered a job teaching art at the Academy of Advertising Art in San Francisco.
Work Bought by Metropolitan Museum
Kingman worked primarily in watercolors, which was the medium of choice for artists at that time, and his work became increasingly popular. One day a rich art collector saw Kingman's work and purchased several pieces for his collection. It was quite a coup for the young artist. The collector later donated his Kingman collection to museums around the country, displaying Kingman's work to the many people who had never had the opportunity to see his work.
In 1940 one of the highest compliments in the art world was paid to Kingman: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, New York purchased one of his works to display in their collection. It was the first piece of Asian-American art to be displayed there. It was perhaps because of this introduction that in 1941 Kingman was given a two-year fellowship from the famous Guggenheim Museum, which focused on modern art. The fellowship paid for Kingman to travel extensively around America, offering the artist a chance to paint myriad views of landscapes he saw on the trip. During this tour Kingman got to see America the way almost no one ever does: in its eclectic entirety. But of all the sights he beheld and painted, his favorite was New York City, and Kingman decided that one day he would move there.
Drafted Into Military During World War II
In 1942 Kingman held a solo art exhibit at the Midtown Gallery in New York City. Critics from papers around New York wrote favorably of the show, and it seemed that Kingman's name in the art world was set. But in 1943, before he could pursue his art any further, Kingman was drafted into the military. It was World War II, and Pearl Harbor had just been attacked by the Japanese. Luckily, however, Kingman was not sent into battle; his art skills were considered too important, and he was sent to Washington, D.C., where he worked as an illustrator for the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. While there he spent his free time completing a series of paintings of the sights around the capital. After the war was over he returned to New York City, where he held an exhibition of these paintings. Kingman's wish came true, and in 1945 he was able to settle in New York City.
During the 1940s and 1950s Kingman kept painting and showing his work. He also taught painting at Columbia University, Hunter College, and at the Famous Artists School in Westport, Connecticut. He became a full-time teacher at Hunter College in 1948. In 1951 the Midtown Gallery held a show of the artist's work from the early days until 1950, commemorating the fact that it had been 10 years since they had last shown the artist's work.
Toured Asia with His Artwork
In 1953 the U.S. State Department's education exchange program invited Kingman to tour Asia to show off his work. Kingman's work was very popular in Asia, and wherever he stopped to exhibit his work, large crowds came see it and to listen to the lectures he gave. On this tour Kingman traveled to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, Bangkok, New Delhi, and Istanbul. On his way home Kingman stopped in Europe, visiting Vienna, Copenhagen, Oslo, London, and Reykjavik, Iceland. He spent his trip giving lectures and showing his work, but also painting the different scenes he saw on his travels. After his return the paintings were sent on tour throughout the United States, funded by the State Department. The New York Times said of Kingman's work: "His urban scenes have a cheery, gently humorous flavor, best sampled in a 40-foot rice-paper scroll that he created in 1954 while on a cultural exchange program sponsored by the State Department. The scroll was published in Life."
Kingman was also invited to paint sets for Hollywood films that needed a special Asian flavor. Movies he painted for included The World of Suzie Wong (1960), the musical Flower Drum Song (1961), and 55 Days at Peking (1963). As his fame spread, Kingman also showed his artwork in such prestigious galleries as the Wildenstein and the Hammer in New York. But it was when he began illustrating movie posters, magazine articles, and magazine covers, including covers for Time, Life and the Saturday Review, that he became a household name. Kingman's work was also used in many other areas, such as posters for airlines, textile designs for sheets and towels, and illustrations for children's books.
Taught and Wrote About Art
In 1957 Kingman began teaching annual painting workshops in many different countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. While doing so he continued his painting, continuing to show his work, especially his favorite scenes of urban New York. The Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China put together a showing of Kingman's work in 1981 so that the Chinese might be exposed to his work, which they deemed worthy. In 1994 an exhibit called "40 Years of Watercolors by Dong Kingman" was put together in Taiwan by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. An exhibit looking at the entire body of Kingman's work was also shown at the Taichung Provincial Museum in Taiwan in 1999. In 2000–2001 just such a show of Kingman's works toured across the United States.
Kingman wrote his autobiography later in life. In Dong Kingman's Watercolors, he looked back on his career as an artist: "Over the years, I've had some difficult times. But whenever I felt discouraged, I would stop and think of how something had always come along which enabled me to continue learning. I would tell myself to have faith and that with time and perseverance I could overcome anything. And I did." Kingman died of pancreatic cancer on May 12, 2000, at his home in New York City, when he was 89 years old.
Legacy Lived On
In his personal life, Kingman married twice. His first marriage to Janice Wong was cut short when she died in 1954. He then married Helena, who died just before him in 1999. He had two sons: Dong Jr. and Eddie, and four grandchildren.
As of the beginning of 2007 Kingman's works continue to be exhibited in some of the major museums in America, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Several private collectors also number Kingman's works among their collections.
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New York Times, May 16, 2000.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 16, 2000.