THE American painter Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978) was admired by a small circle of artists and critics, but he never captured the public imagination. To modern-minded viewers he seemed old-fashioned even in the 1920s and 1930s. Although Dickinson taught and exhibited in New York, he spent much of his adult life on Cape Cod, and his paintings did not reflect the art movements of his time. It is easy to perceive him as a man isolated from whatever was forward-looking in art and society. Dickinson's painting ``The Cello Player'' faces backward to the 19th century and embraces the 20th at the same time. He has painted each individual element in the picture in a detailed, realistic way. In that sense he was clearly in the Northern European painting tradition. The early Flemish and Dutch masters were devoted to presenting detailed surfaces, and such 19th-century American painters as William Harnett and John Peto did still lifes so realistic that they could be mistaken for assemblages of real objects.
But Dickinson was far from realistic in his arrangement of the separate objects in ``The Cello Player.'' The seashells and books and kitchenware in the painting are suspended in a dreamlike space; nothing is solidly supported, and it is inconceivable that we are looking into a real room.
Dickinson's arrangement of objects has at least two sources. In 1920 he was profoundly impressed by El Greco's vast, complex painting ``The Burial of Count Orgaz,'' and took it as a model for his own work. The other source is the analytic cubism of Picasso and Braque, which was still an avant-garde tendency when Dickinson made this painting. While it is true that Picasso and his friends leaned toward wine bottles rather than coffeepots, and the guitar rather than the cello, there are obvious formal resemblances between Dickinson's painting and the experiments of early cubism.
Those resemblances would have been easy to understand if he had been working in Paris or even in New York, and had aspired to European sophistication. But he was in fact living on Cape Cod, presumably to associate himself with the American past and put some distance between himself and the artistic fashions of the metropolis. Dickinson's isolated position made it all the more remarkable that he should have attempted to combine avant-garde formal ideas with craftsmanlike realism.
We know that he cared about his subjects and about picturing them in the most scrupulous way. His journals tell us that he began the painting on March 4, 1924 and finished it on August 27, 1926. It took him 290 sittings over a period of more than two years to produce what he described as ``a decided advance over anything I have previously done....''
Dickinson's ability to look both forward and backward made ``The Cello Player'' an almost ideal purchase for The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, an administrative entity that brings together two municipal museums, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum.
For some decades past the museums have been conservative in taste, largely avoiding the art movements of the 20th century. Although gifts and bequests have brought modern painting into the collection, the purchase of ``The Cello Player'' last year marks the first time that the museums have spent their own money for a 20th-century painting.
The purchase was nicely calculated to suggest that the museums are going to change, but not too quickly or too frighteningly. If Cape Cod cubism is well received, more adventurous acquisitions are sure to follow.
Between its elegiac mood and its unbalanced form, ``The Cello Player'' can be a fairly disquieting picture. Like so much of Dickinson's work, however, it remains palatable to conservative viewers, partly because of its familiar subject matter and partly because, in an age of abstraction and avantgardism, Dickinson never gave up his commitment to the figurative tradition in painting.