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.
Carnival, which should have been a lighthearted subject, is enveloped in an eerie darkness that hangs over the amusement park like an ominous cloud. The man wearing a white, costume-like robe and playing a violin is more reminiscent of a beggar than a clown. The viewer cannot see the faces of the two women walking toward the stairs and the people at the bottom of the steps are barely visible in the dim light. Mattison may have intended to paint a happy event, but the uncertainties of the Depression have clearly found their way onto his canvas.
Skip L. Berry, Martin F. Krause, and Harriet G. Warkel. The Herron Chronicle, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. ISBN-13: 978-0253342379