The son of the French Consul in San Francisco, where he was born in 1851, Dillon at first chose diplomacy as his own career and worked briefly in the French consulate in New York. But he had a change of heart, and trained as an artist from 1875 in Paris where he stayed and embarked on a successful career (that did not, however, make him rich) as a painter whose work was exhibited in the Salons, and a much-in-demand lithographer.
He produced imaginative calling cards, menus, greeting cards, calendars, illustrations for programs, sheet music, books and magazines, and posters. He also produced limited editions. This was before fine art prints were numbered as they now are, but Dillon had a propensity for printing on different papers, and making variations such as whimsical sketches known as remarques in the margins, so none of these prints were run off in great numbers. Some but not all were hand-signed.
According to David Karel’s Dictionnaire des artistes de langue française en Amérique du Nord, Dillon kept some US ties: he was a member of the American Art Association of Paris, and showed in 1884 at the National Academy of Design in NY.
Lépinoy-Guégan says Dillon very much depended on his income as an art teacher to make ends meet, but he was also a driving force behind projects to publish original lithographs by well-known artists of the day, and as such is considered to have made a major contribution to giving new life to the medium (drawing or painting on a flat stone surface then pressing paper to it, invented in the late 18th century).
He occupied leadership positions in associations such as the Société des peintres-lithographes. As the 19th century drew to a close the French government made him a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
Dillon’s work was influenced by Japanese prints both compositionally and technically. He made much use of the spatter (crachis) technique to suggest shadows and atmospheric conditions like fog and rain. He sometimes used full color, mainly in large posters, but more frequently monochrome brown, grays, black which heightened the sense of mood.
Many of his lithographs are cheerful but some have a brooding, mysterious quality like the enigmatic 1908 Drawing Lesson, where a male instructor stands surrounded by a group of seated women in street clothes, some wearing hats, who but for one are ignoring him. Nor are they absorbed in drawing (one is napping). It is impossible to know if they are bored, or if the man is not an instructor at all but an artist imagining models who have posed or will pose for him.
Dillon’s scenes are also noteworthy for his ability to capture subtle ranges of human expression. They remain very much in a visual aesthetic of another era, have a definite historical interest for that reason, but may also appeal to modern viewers for their psychology and because of Dillon’s skill as a draftsman and printmaker.
Asked what she would highlight about HP Dillon’s work, Maryvonne Lépinoy-Guégan replies: ‘’Polichinelle [the Commedia dell’Arte figure Punch the trickster]. He drew him so often in the margins of his lithos he became identified with the character’’.