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Dennis M. Burlingame (1901-1964)
Congress of Wonders
early 1930s 

Oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches; signed verso, lower right: "DENNIS BURLINGAME." Bears label of Lincoln Glenn, LLC on verso.


Taylor, Adeline, "Here's Rising Artist Who Knows Circus Life from Inside: Reveals Big Top Lore," Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 21, 1933, p. 7; "When Tillage Begins: The Stone City Art Colony and School," originally published online October,2003 by the Busse Library, Mount Mercy University, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and excerpted on; Garwood, Darrell, "Artist in Iowa: A Life of Grant Wood" (W.W. Norton & Company, 1944), p. 154.


Brandywine Valley Auctions, Exton, PA, December 31, 2021, lot 202; unidentified 1st dibs dealer, Bernville, PA; Lincoln Glenn, LLC, Larchmont, NY in partnership with Helicline Fine Art , New York, NY; acquired from Lincoln Glenn, LLC, December, 2022.


Unlined; in 3-inch black, partially mottled frame with ¾-inch linen liner (possibly original).

     As artists go, few can match the unique and colorful career of Dennis Meighan Burlingame.  Born in Oneida, New York in 1901, he spent much of his early adulthood as an itinerant, often in the employ of circuses and carnivals painting banners and circus wagons.*  According to family legend, Burlingame worked briefly for the James Strait circus in Florida as a snake charmer, decorated their merry-go-rounds, painted murals at Florida's famous Flamingo Night Club, and executed private mural commissions for club patrons, including the entertainer Arthur Godfrey.**  He would reportedly "vanish" for years and then reappear in New York.


     Initially self-taught, Burlingame came to the attention of Grant Wood in the early 1930s when the renowned Regionalist painter awarded him first prize for his landscape in a local art competition in Davenport, Iowa, where Burlingame was apparently living at the time.***  Intrigued by the young artist’s natural talent, Wood invited him to participate (as both a student and an assistant****) in the Stone City Art Colony he operated in that Iowa community with fellow artists Edward Rowan and Adrian Dornbush during the summers of 1932 and 1933.  Implored by Wood to “paint what you know,” he spent much of his time at the summer sessions painting scenes informed by his circus and carnival experiences, five of which were exhibited at the Increase Robinson Gallery in Chicago in July of 1933.  Chicago Tribune art critic Eleanor Jewett found the works "spirited and jolly in color, remarkably good in design and full of human interest."*****


     Congress of Wonders (a presumptive title for this work) and a larger, related work (Fig. 1) may have been painted under the watchful eye of Wood during Burlingame’s residency at Stone City.  The term probably refers to what would be more accurately termed a carnival freak show featuring, as the banner proclaims, “oddities,” “curiosities” and other examples of the “strange.”  Each canvas depicts several performers upon a stage flanked by a barker on the right and a ticket seller on the left.  A stream of onlookers viewed from behind populates the foreground, attracted (if not intrigued) by the entreaties of the barker.  Like the barker, the artist draws us in, using vibrant color in lieu of a barker’s spiel.  

     Burlingame’s itinerant lifestyle continued beyond his Iowa sojourn, marked by several stints with the W.P.A. (including a commission for the U. S. Post Office in Wildwood, New Jersey) and a return to the peripatetic world of carnivals by the early 1940s. Burlingame reportedly worked for a time with Walt Disney Studios in New York and shared a Greenwich Village apartment with Jackson Pollock for a short time (briefly experimenting with his style) before passing away in Brooklyn in 1964.******


*An article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette (May 21, 1933, p. 7) credits Burlingame with five years of circus experience and three more with carnival companies.  

**Much of the information in this essay derives from "When Tillage Begins: The Stone City Art Colony and School,"originally published online October 2003 by the Busse Library, Mount Mercy University, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and excerpted on Burlingame’s work as a snake charmer is corroborated by a brief squib in the Carnivals section of the July 11, 1942 edition of The Billboard on a series of shows in Delphos, Ohio by a carnival troupe known as Hubbard’s Midway in which it was reported that “Dennis Burlingame’s Snake Show is clicking.”

***According to the colony’s records, he was a resident of Dubuque, Iowa, by 1933, although an article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette in that year (see first footnote above) identifies him as living in that city.

****Burlingame’s duties included assisting Arnold Pyle with framing classes and serving as bartender for the colony’s popular Sickle & Sheaf restaurant.

*****Jewett, Eleanor, "Works of Olive Rush, Midwestern Group, at Robinson Galleries, Valuable Addition to Shows Here for Fair," Chicago Tribune, July 23, 1933, p. 74.

******Obituary in The New York Times, January 25, 1964, p. 23.

Fig. 1 - Leon Bibel, Building a House, c. 1937, linoleum block print (private collection).  Photo courtesy Park Slope Gallery, copyright Leon Bibel Estate.


Fig. 1 - Dennis Burlingame, Untitled (Carnival Sideshow), early 1930s. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches.  Private collection, New York, NY.

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