Treasures from the Vault: Dong Kingman

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Born in Oakland, California in 1911, Dong Moy Shu wanted to be an artist as early as age five. Around this same time his family moved to Hong Kong and, upon entering school, the young boy received a new name, part of Chinese tradition. The family name Dong preceded his newly bestowed name chosen to reflect his interest in art: King (meaning scenery) and Man (meaning composition). We know him today as Dong Kingman. 

As a student at Chan Sun-Wen School, Kingman excelled in calligraphy and watercolor. While attending the Lingnan Academy branch school in Hong Kong, the budding artist connected with the influential teacher Szeto Wai who had studied art in Paris during the early 1920s. Szeto Wai introduced Kingman to French art, notably Impressionist painting.  

After Kingman returned to Oakland in 1929 as a teenager, he studied at the Fox Morgan Art School. Faculty encouraged him to paint outdoors in the city, a practice he continued throughout his life. Kingman’s first solo exhibition at the San Francisco Art Association in 1936 brought him immediate recognition for his depiction of the city’s street scenes in watercolor.     

During the Depression, the Federal Art Project under the Works Progress Administration provided financial assistance and exhibition opportunities for artists, including people of color. Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Dox Thrash, and Charles White were among the number of African Americans benefitting from the program. The Federal Art Project employed a handful of Asian American artists too, like Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Isamu Noguchi. Their numbers, however, decreased in 1937 when U.S. citizenship became a requirement for employment. Kingman worked in the Watercolor Division of the Federal Art Project—California. His $90 monthly earnings allowed him to share a studio space and focus on painting from 1936-41: “I gave up my job, and for the next five years, I was able to concentrate on improving my watercolor technique, to think for myself, and to practice and develop my own style.”i    

In 1941 the artist received the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship for two consecutive years, which permitted him to continue painting full time. During WWII, from 1942-45, he served as a cartographer for the Office of Strategic Services at Camp Beal, CA. After the war he moved to New York City where he taught at Columbia University and Hunter College.   

Using a largely monochromatic palette, Kingman painted The Storm (1942), an intensely moody seascape. He skillfully used the bare light-colored paper for the white capped waves and the wings of a flock of seagulls. The Storm came to the Fort Wayne Museum of Art with a label indicating that it was shown at Midtown Galleries and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, which had a major exhibition of his works in 1945.   

A watercolor of a turbulent, dark sea with a glowing lighthouse in the distance. In the sky, seagulls fly. The sky is extremely dark, with blacks, greys, and reds.
Dong Kingman, American, 1911-2000. The Storm. Watercolor on paper, 1942. Museum purchase, 1946.02. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

In 1942, his one-person exhibition at Midtown Galleries attracted media coverage in Time MagazineNewsweekThe New York Times, and The New Yorker. Kingman’s critical reception was positive overall, and through the years they proclaimed he was among the best watercolorists. In retrospect, these reviews that were full of praise also brought to light the mainstream public’s attitudes towards race and ethnicity in the late 1930s-40s.  Writers used language that was at times patronizing and privileged Western art traditions over Asian, for example, Time magazine referred to him as “bouncy buck-toothed little Dong Kingman” ii and The New Yorker a “cherubic Oriental of 31, with just enough command of our language to get into trouble.” iii   

It is unsurprising that Kingman developed a preference for working in watercolor, as the artist observed, “Western painters call me Chinese. Chinese painters say I’m very Western. I would say I’m in the middle.” iv While in school in Hong Kong he gained experience working in ink and wash, an important art form in traditional Chinese art. The popularity of watercolor in the U.S. was building momentum from the mid-19th century thanks to the founding of the American Watercolor Society in 1866 that championed the medium beyond its minor use as preparatory studies for paintings. Alfred Stieglitz’s galleries in New York exhibited a high percentage of drawings and watercolors, including the works of Charles Demuth and John Marin. Early 20th century publications and exhibitions helped pave the way towards a higher regard for drawings and watercolors. A critic even dubbed watercolor as the American medium!   

Kingman usually began work outdoors and finished the composition in the studio. He was drawn to the vitality of urban living with all the tall buildings, bridges, parks, and the city’s residents, as seen in New York #3 (1942). In the fewest brushstrokes of transparent washes, the artist could quickly provide the semblance of figures and the feel of the neighborhood.  

A watercolor of New York shows buildings with a small park in front and people milling on the sidewalk. A subway opening is apparent, and American flags flutter in the wind against a dark grey sky.
Dong Kingman, American, 1911-2000. New York #3. Watercolor on paper, 1942. Museum purchase, 1946.01. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

The artist’s creativity found many outlets, including poster designs for airlines and textile creations for sheets and towels. His artwork for movie sets can be found in 55 Days of Peking (1963), The World of Suzie Wong (1964), The Sand Pebbles (1966), and The Desperados (1969). 

Kingman’s work can be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and even the NASA Art Program. In 1981, he was the first American artist to be granted a solo exhibition in China after the US resumed diplomatic relations. He was amongst the founding faculty for the Famous Artists School in Westport, Connecticut, where he taught art through correspondence. Kingman also exhibited regularly at Midtown Galleries and Wildenstein & Co. in New York. 

i Dong Kingman and Helena Kuo Kingman, Dong Kingman’s Watercolors (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1980), 18. 

ii “Dashing Realist,” Time Magazine (3 September 1945, 58), 

iii Leonard Robinson and Russell Maloney, “Don [sic] Kingman,” The New Yorker (10 October 1942), 

iv Dong Kingman in San Francisco (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America and Chinese American National Museum, 2001), 22.  

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