Donald Mattison was born in Beloit, Wisconsin. He attended Yale University where he received a bachelor of fine arts degree. Mattison moved to Chicago to work as an assistant for the muralist Eugene Savage. Although he produced notable murals and paintings of figures and landscapes, Mattison turned to portraiture later in his career. He won the Prix de Rome in 1928, a scholarship for art students that provided the opportunity to study abroad. Mattison spent the next three years in Europe, where he was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome. After his fellowship ended, Mattison moved back to America where he taught at New York University, Columbia University and the New York School of Design. In 1933, he was offered a permanent full-time position as the Dean of John Herron Art School in Indianapolis, where he also continued to teach. Mattison’s art is rooted in the classical tradition. He worked primarily in oil to capture the pleasant aspects of life, including landscapes, community celebrations, and children at play. His 150 portraits included, U. S. Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Sherman Minton, Indiana Governors Paul McNutt and Harold W. Handley, author Booth Tarkington, and the former president of the New York Stock Exchange Emil Schram.
Before becoming Herron School of Art director, Mattison assisted Indiana native Eugene Savage on an important mural commission in Chicago. Excursion has elements of the government-sponsored mural painting style of the 1930s. The riverboat and the bridge, which resembles structures on the Ohio River in southern Indiana, address themes of commerce and engineering that the Depression-era government was eager to promote. In the foreground, a group of passengers has just left the steamboat for a day’s outing. Two of the women hold baskets of flowers, mementos of the day that is falling into shadow. Like many Yale art school graduates of his generation, in these compositions Mattison concentrated more on building complex formats than on carefully rendering figures. In addition to his achievements as Herron director, Mattison also enjoyed great local success as a portraitist.
Skip L. Berry, Martin F. Krause, and Harriet G. Warkel. The Herron Chronicle, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. ISBN-13: 978-0253342379