Aug. 2 is the birthday of an artist whose pioneering abstract paintings contain surprising heft and solidity and emotional appeal. His life story offers inspiration as the pandemic limits our wanderings.
The fallout from a heart attack combined with kidney disease made Arthur G. Dove (1880–1946) a near invalid in the last years of his life, but that didn’t stop his curious mind.
”Dove found his view confined to the immediate neighborhood around his home. However, he transformed this limitation into a period of experimentation with form and medium,” wrote Jessica Murphy in the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography that includes a reference to the sources used in my research on Dove.)
“Until his final days, his diary entries recorded his artistic goals alongside observations of the natural surroundings,” Murphy wrote.
Dove’s continued devotion to painting becomes more impressive on learning of his circumstances.
Below is a photo of Dove’s home in his final years. It’s a one-room former post office that Dove shared with his wife and fellow artist, Helen S. Torr.
Dove and Torr settled in 1938 in the pretty town of Centerport on Long Island’s North Shore. In writing this essay, I wondered if Dove and Torr ever visited with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In 1942, the French author and aristocrat spent some time in a grand home about eight miles away from what’s charitably been called the Dove/Torr “cottage.”
If anyone knows if Saint-Exupéry and Dove met, please let me know. My first thought was that they might, but then I considered how different their lives were. I was thinking Dove from the viewpoint of a 21rst century fan of modern art. For us, Dove is an artist whose work has been featured in one-man shows in museums like the Whitney.
Dove today is considered a giant among American painters, but his fame largely grew in the years after this death. Not so for Saint-Exupéry.
In his lifetime, he won great praise for his writing, including a U.S. National Book Award for the non-fiction for his “Wind, Sand and Stars,” a memoir of flying mail routes in Africa and South America.
Saint-Exupéry already had published several other books. He would write much of his best-known work, “Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince),” in his rental home that overlooked the Long Island Sound.
Called the Delamater-Bevin Mansion, this home of more than 20 rooms was designed with a nod to the Second Empire style of Saint-Exupéry’s native France.
“I wanted a hut, and it’s the Palace of Versailles,” Saint-Exupéry groused about the mansion his wife selected as their rental. But the couple happily entertained a stream of visitors during their short time on the Long Island Sound.
Where Dove and Torr lived was much closer to the “hut” that Saint-Exupéry said — at least in jest — had been his idea of a Long Island retreat.
Art historian Alan Pensler, who wrote a book about Dove, told the New York Times in 2016 that the artist “wanted freedom, and he forewent a lot of material comforts so he could paint on his own schedule.”
Perhaps Dove was a minimalist who eschewed possessions to focus on his art.
But Dove and Torr also had repeated financial struggles, despite his having major art collector Duncan Phillips as a patron and Alfred Stieglitz as his dealer.
“The artists were not particularly famous in their lifetimes, and never made much money from their art,” Eve M. Kahn wrote in a 2016 New York Times article on Dove and Torr. “They recycled wooden grocery crates into panels for their paintings.”
Before settling in Centerport, Dove and Torr had lived in Geneva, New York, where Dove attended to an inheritance that was burdened by debt. In Geneva, Dove and Torr lived on the top floor of a brick commercial building that his father had constructed in the 1870s. Dove’s father had been a building contractor who wanted his son to become a lawyer. Instead, after graduating from Cornell University in 1903, Dove began working as a magazine illustrator. He traveled to Europe in 1907 and spent time in Paris, soaking up the artistic trends of that time, including impressionism.
But Dove quickly developed his own style and pioneered abstract act in the United States.
In 1912, Dove had a one-man show at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery with “pastels so distilled from natural motifs as to approach abstraction,” according to the website of the Museum of Modern Art.
“I would like to make something that is real itself, that does not remind anyone else of any other thing, and that does not have to be explained,” Dove wrote in an unpublished notebook, as quoted by MOMA.
Like many artists, Dove tested different approaches over the years. While a leader in abstract act, Dove also created many paintings where his favorite themes are represented, although clearly stylized. He loved water, whether in lakes or the Long Island sound. Boats appear often in his more representational paintings. Dove also was fond of painting clouds and trees and the sun.
And Dove gave us the moon — gloriously — over and over again.
One of my favorite of his moon paintings appears below. This is another work from the Phillips Collection, which is the museum founded by Dove’s patron.
Many abstract painters show us colors at play, colors in motion, colors in and out of harmony, even colors in competition for our eyes’ attention.
Dove is no slouch in this regard. I have spent many happy hours of my life staring at his paintings, watching his colors at work. Shades of greens catch the eye with his paintings like “Neighborly Attempt at Murder (1941),”owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Beige-y tones come alive against blues and silvers in “Reaching Waves” (1929) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But Dove gives us shapes our eyes can almost feel as well as see.
Art historian Rachael Z. DeLue of Princeton University beautifully described this quality of Dove’s work.
During a 2016 talk at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., DeLue first noted how Dove’s “Me and the Moon” features a “circle of glowing white-yellow” set against a brown ground.
Dove then extends the circumference of that moon by circling it with concentric bands of alternating black, gray and dark gray-green. These band echo the shapes in the upper half of the canvas.
We see a “plane that twists and turns in space almost as if Dove had had the capacity to make sculpture out of his painting and took his hand and twisted that form,” DeLue said.
Yes, that is it exactly.
It is almost as if Dove could “make sculpture out of his painting.”