by Timothy A. Eaton

EARTH, SUN AND SEA: John Marin's lyric image

by Sam Hunter

Edited by Timothy A. Eaton



EARTH, SUN AND SEA: John Marin's lyric image

by Sam Hunter


Among the great early American modernists, John Marin is unique: a strange, crochety and yet wonderfully expansive artist who continues to dazzle, delight and yet willfully confuse us, as the century wanes, with his unique mixture of bristling certain- ties, in art as in life, and his rare ability to submerge his egoism in a life-long, mystic embrace of nature. With these appealing contrarieties of persona, his work remains vital and seems never to date. It retains the pristine blush of discovery and the peculiarly exact, yet never measurable, balance he can strike with such finesse between nature and vision, and between the obligatory Cubist framework of European modernism and his own impetuous pictorial impulses.

Marin belongs to a time-honored American romantic tradition of using nature to express certain emotional intangibles, but he also staunchly abides by the modernist ethos of concreteness of form. At the same time we must support and applaud Marin's personal discovery that his art might best be understood as a form of poetic metaphor, even within the modernist canon, as a system of private signs that attain universal meanings with reference to nature. Marin was quite unlike Kandinsky and his followers in European abstraction, whose biomorphism probably impacted more upon Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove. Marin was basically a pragmatist and a natural skeptic despite his transcendental, philosophical forbearers in American landscape painting. He clearly had no vaulting ambition, as did Kandinsky and the Blue Rider group, including the great Paul Klee, to translate his rather precious, plainly localized visual ciphers into universal symbols of artistic and "cosmic" creation.

The firm grip Marin still has on both the historical, and contemporary imagination has less to do with his "modernism" or art theory than with a traditionally American romantic individualism that he certainly exemplified with passion and persistence. But his continuing visual and plastic appeal has also to do with his remarkable, wholly personal tactile sense. The lyrical effusions so often associated with his scintillating mastery of the watercolor medium probably interest present-day artists less than Marin's expressive surfaces in oil paint, appearing in the late thirties and forties particularly. Late in his life when Marin had begun to work more consistently in oils, he told a biographer that he wished "to give paint a chance to show itself entirely as paint." [l] This insistence on the stubborn, irreducible, material reality of paint later, in fact, became the very heart- beat of contemporary artistic creation in America, with the emergence of the postwar "Action" painters.

However, it was not with Marin, nor with Stieglitz, that the emerging New York School chose to engage in serious dialogue but rather with the "exiled" generation of European Surrealists who had gathered around Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century in the early years of World War II. Stieglitz's An American Place only marginally attracted the insurgents Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell and others who began to show with Peggy Guggenheim beginning in 1943. There is little doubt that the "handwriting" or accidentalism of Pollock's gestural painting style was directly indebted to Masson and Surrealist automatism, and De Kooning's pictorial style less obviously drew on the similar international Surrealist sources, but by way of Matta and Gorky. It was not a moment when nationalist identities carried much weight with the younger American vanguard group.

If Marin still keenly engages serious discussion and attracts discerning contemporary critics to his art, it is because he managed to advance the modernist program in his art under the influence of Cézanne in particular. Marin can be said, broadly, to have carried forward the vital rehabilitation of those "painting techniques, whose principal sin," the poet Mallarme had parenthetically observed in 1874, "is to mask the origin of this art, which is made of oils and colors." Marin discovered for himself the ethos of modernism, and understood that the substance of art and its meanings lay in the revealed expressive materials and visual language itself. Happily, this did nothing to impede his exploration of motifs in nature, including a lifelong, inexhaustible visual dialogue with the sea.

The other vital link between Marin and the contemporary generation is his intense love of personal liberty. He was a romantic in the American grain, and he managed to convert European modernism and Cubism in particular into an essentially lyric image (rather than a structural or formalist expression primarily). It was a lyric image with a personally accented, tough-minded structure. In his passionate pursuit of artistic freedom Marin quite self-consciously, even clownishly at times, took on the stage role of the eccentric individualist, adapting himself to the popular image of the shrewd, laconic Yankee who scorns the highfalutin' and pretentious, mistrusts intellectualism, and affects a picturesque and slightly fantastic style. Marin's friend, Loren Mozely, has described him as "an American original." Mozely noted that Marin's "letters as well as his speech were full of tasty Yankee expressions such as 'Crackerjack,' 'High Cockalorum,' 'Hum-Dinger;'" [2] this was zesty, anachronistic slang out of Constance Rourke's study of American humor and folkways.

The paradox of Marin, as with so many American artists who emerged in the Stieglitz circle, lies in his combination of an aggressive native pride carried to the point of an almost gleeful provincialism, and a contrary desire to embody and respect the cosmopolitan spirit. Marin's art reflects, and at its best, unifies these warring impulses. Writing to Alfred Stieglitz in 1927, in a loose, Whitmanesque prose, Marin all too readily admitted the contradictions within himself, but seemed to set them aside with that characteristically disarming candor and a consuming energy that makes his self-fascination seem expansive and creative rather than an unfortunate defensive lapse:

"Curiously twisted creature. Prejudiced as Hell.
Unprejudiced as Hell.
Narrow-minded as they make 'em.
Broad-minded next minute.
Hating everything foreign, to a degree, with the opposite coming in, time and time.
A shouting spread-eagled American.
A drooping wet-winged sort of nameless fowl the next. But, take it easy, whoa there, pull up..." [3]

John Marin was born on December 23, 1870, to a mother who died nine days later and a father who left his upbringing to his rather dour but devoted maternal aunts, Lelia and Jenny Currey, Marin grew up in Weehawken, N.J. In the seventies, his Currey grandfather bought a peach farm in Delaware, and for several years the family traveled between the two bucolic homes. It was in Delaware that Marin began to sketch, while accompanying his Civil War-sharpshooter uncle Dick Currey on hunting jaunts into orchard and field.

Even then, Marin wanted to show nature exactly in its various moods. His biographer, MacKinley Helm, listened to him recall 70 years after those trips with pad and pencil how he sought to show the way the "conies bounded over the bracken; so that many years later, when he had learned to use color, he was predisposed to paint life in motion. Trees, birds, and ships; clouds, islands, and ocean; all these have lived and moved freely in the forty-year cycle of the mature Marin paintings. " [4]

The freedom and almost ecstatic, pantheistic vision of those early days were curtailed when Marin became a student in New Jersey schools, from the age of 10 to 18; they never left him, however, and form the backbone of his aesthetic. And, although he attended a variety of institutions -private schools, public schools, prep classes at Stevens Institute of Technology -Marin's preference was to be outdoors, as he was each summer.

Wherever he was -- on the Jersey coast, in the Catskills, in upstate New York -- and whatever his activity -- mostly hunting or fishing -- Marin sketched. In 1886, he captured the appearance of meadows in the Catskills, of cows and trees, mountains and shadows. The next year, he broadened his reach to include washes in color and to experiment with the Turneresque effects obtained by adding tints to a wet sheet of paper. There is something of Impressionism in those fledgling watercolors, and in the blank spaces of white sheet between tints that add brilliance to the tonalities, a hint of Marin's future explorations of tonal effects.

Even in those fledgling, early works one encounters a sense of the grandest of his subjects: the ocean. While the landscape was important to him, as it had been to generations of American artists who expressed mystic feelings in their studies of nature -- Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School, the Luminists of the mid-nineteenth century, George Inness and his evocations of an Eden that was disappearing along with the West, and with Manifest Destiny, it was the sea, boundless and untrammeled, that stood for the essential American sense of self, as a rugged individualist.

As it had for Winslow Homer in the nineties, when he isolated himself from society for painfully long stretches of time, in his studio on a remote Maine rock overlooking the sea. The watercolors Homer made in those years, as Marin matured and assimilated European influences, pit elemental forces against one another: the waves, never-ending and never-tiring, beating themselves against Maine's rocky shores and shoals. Like Homer, though without his ferocity, Marin turned to the sea for its infinite variety, its sudden and implacable mood swings, its transcendent and yet visceral link to human existence -as the original matrix, the primordial stew.

"It is now a green gray," he wrote from Cape Split, Maine, on September 1, 1938, describing his chief subject to Stieglitz, "and the rain clouds are a racing atop it, a spilling their showers on it -- it can take it -- it can take heaps and not notice it. All the writings of man about it -- all the ravings of poets about it -- don't bother a particle".

"It looks its best in broad daylight when it's all revealed in all its big Saltiness --You Can Smell it afar off," the artist wrote. "When you are on it you are enveloped in its -- BIG SMELL -- To bring something of this back -- I for one -- hope that my paint too shall smell -- a little smell -- that it shall give forth an honest healthy stench that shall -- a bit -counter-balance unholy vulgarity." [5]

After his school years ended, Marin made several attempts to fit into the patterns his anxious aunts considered appropriate for a young man of his temperament and background. His father, always in touch with Marin, was well off financially, but the requirement nonetheless was for a man to provide for himself. Marin was unsuited, however, for his job at a wholesale notions house on Lower Broadway; he was more successful over the next four years, as he worked in a series of architects' offices. He was still painting, on Sundays, when he designed several plain frame houses in Union City, among them one for his aunts. Then, for the next few years, he devoted himself to his art; a sketchbook from that period shows architectural sketches whose backgrounds began to reveal his private symbols for nature, and specifically for the American landscape.

Self-taught and intensely engaged in his interpretation of his surroundings, Marin limited himself to the most economical line as he traveled to St. Paul and Milwaukee, along the Mississippi and on to Lake Michigan. He gradually developed a sort of idiosyncratic alphabet, a notation system as personal as his handwriting, so that while the site remained recognizable, its details were indicated by repeated patterns -for trees, perhaps, or clouds. From 1888 to 1898, Marin made countless watercolors; fewer than 20 survived, but those few reveal a preoccupation with formal problems that, all along, would express itself more intricately in familiar subjects than with fresh material.

Marin was twenty-eight when his family accepted the fact that he would be an artist, and sent him to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, from 1899 to 1901. There he studied under Thomas P. Anschutz and William Merritt Chase. Later, for a few weeks, he would also take classes at the Art Students' League in New York. His task as an art student in Philadelphia was to copy classic busts; Marin, bored with such inanimate subjects, worked en plein aire -- at the Philadelphia wharves and the Hackensack Meadows, along the North River and the Palisades. The classes were almost completely wasted on an artist whose distinctive vision was already set, as he would later recall.

At that point, Marin was working in both oils and watercolors, the latter the medium for which he would become best known. He left for Paris in 1905 and, one artist friend recalled, cut a memorable figure in Bohemian circles. He was 35, hardly a young artist. His lean, dry, somewhat swarthy face with its sharp nose already was reminding people of a wizened apple or the visage of a wren. A slight, medium-tall, somewhat slouchy figure, he had, together with the look of a Yankee farmer, the curious personal dignity and simplicity of the type.

" At excited moments, he also resembled his future watercolors," that friend recalled. "His black [although by all other accounts it was a "Currey brown"] hair would appear to be flying in a wedge from his head, and beneath it there would lie a brownish patch that was his head, and beneath that, a white band that was his collar, and basing it, an area of ultramarine that was his four-in-hand." [6]

Marin thus came to modem art relatively late, and in a circuitous manner, after considerable hesitation. He had apprenticed himself to an architect (a fact which has often been used inconclusively to explain his feeling for decisive pictorial structure), and then actually practiced as an architect before settling on painting. Only at the age of twenty-eight did he begin to give art his whole attention, entering the Pennsylvania Academy. There he met Arthur Carles, who later shared his interest in advanced European art and became a close companion when Marin moved to Paris.

From 1905 to 1911 Marin lived abroad and actually made a considerable reputation from his etchings of European monuments, executed in a delicate, atmospheric style, which suggests Whistlers tonal refinements and aestheticism. But even in his early European Wanderjahre, when he seemed to be compiling a careful notebook on the European past with much emphasis on unspectacular, descriptive detail, Marin's more wayward impulses erupted. An etching of the Cathedral at Rouen shows his restless, nervous energy shaking itself loose in a characteristically soaring transcription.

By 1908 he had begun to use fresh color and exercise a new freedom in the watercolor medium, in his own looser but more intense adaptation of Impressionist technique. His London Omnibus of that year treated a commonplace scene with a freedom and vigor, which forecast a new direction in Marin's art. In 1910, at Kufstein in the Austrian Tyrol, Marin executed a series of scenic watercolors of an even more inventive and improvisatory nature, using merely suggestive color diffusions and an incisive, fragmentary technique to indicate position and form. This transitional style, diffuse and accented at once, oriental in its economy and is reminiscent of the Neo-Impressionist manner employed in watercolors by Matisse and Marquet in 1904, as they stood at the threshold of a more explosive Fauve manner. There is no evidence that Marin was aware of the Fauves, but through his friends Alfred Maurer and Arthur Caries he undoubtedly knew the work of Matisse, and absorbed something of the growing sentiment of freedom, if not the actual technical viewpoints, of the contemporary Paris art world.

In 1909 Marin held his first one-man show at the Stieglitz gallery. This exhibition enjoyed a surprising succès d'éstime. Writing in Camera Work, Paul Haviland declared that Marin's watercolors were "pronounced by authorities" to be "the best examples of the medium which have ever been shown in New York."7 And the critic Charles Caffin scenting the abstract bias of his work, wrote: "Consciousness of facts disappears in a spiritualized version of form and color." [8]

Only in 1911 and 1912, however, after he had passed his fortieth birthday, did Marin's modernism decisively announce itself in a dynamic new graphic style, with the first of his etchings of the Woolworth Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. Like Max Weber, Marsden Hartley, and Dove, he was undoubtedly deeply influenced at a critical moment in his development by his association with Alfred Stieglitz. At "291" he had the opportunity in 1911 to see and examine at his leisure exhibitions of Cézanne's late watercolors and the early Cubist drawings and watercolors of Picasso. The importance of exposure to this work was later pointed out by Charles Caffin the New York American. Describing the transition in Marin's style from his anecdotal, European etchings, he wrote: "Then the exhibition at "291" of Cézanne and Picasso watercolors and the talks in the gallery that they stimulated opened up to him the suggestion of abstraction as a motive. He spent a summer in the Tyrol, seeking to discover the principles of abstract expression in the study of mountain scenery. Then he returned to New York and for a while tested his experience and enlarged it by studying the colossal aspects of the city's skyscrapers." [9]

Marin's new manner drew on the spontaneous tube color and the heightened sensations of the Fauves, on the structure of Cubism and perhaps most deeply of all, on Cézanne's watercolors. These influences were ignited by the artist's intense and individual reaction to the dynamism of New York, a New York in the midst of a building boom. Such landmarks as the Manhattan Bridge, the Woolworth Building, the New York Central Railroad Terminal had either just been completed or were in construction. In these rising structures Marin found a concrete manifestation of the spirit of explosive growth, vitality, and romantic hope of America, and his impressions had a fresh impact after his prolonged absence on the Continent. An ability to compose rhythmically and to register vision with utmost rapidity and brevity were brilliantly demonstrated in these early etchings of New York's rising skyline. It was part of Marin's special and more obvious gift that he could toss off the evocative, lyrical fragment with little apparent effort or meditation.


The sense of new energies in American life and culture undoubtedly had much to do with liberating Marin's art. Yet perhaps the plastic tensions in his work were based even more profoundly on his assimilation of the dynamic principles of European pictorial forms. As early as 1916 Charles Caffin had called attention to the structural integrity and the solid grasp of abstraction in Marin's art, quite apart from the convulsive, Expressionist character and native stridency later critics tended to emphasize. Caffin wrote: "The various planes and surfaces of the transparent edifice are locked together with the logic of the builder who makes provisions for the stresses and strains of his assembled materials. I might illustrate the effect of this organic orderliness by the analogy of a person studying a foreign language, when he no longer consciously translates the words and idioms from one tongue to the other, but thinks freely in the new one. Marin is no longer translating the concrete into abstract; he has learned to think in the latter. And his freedom reacts upon oneself.. One accepts what is seen without any need of conjecture. One can enjoy freely the spiritual appeal of the expression." [10]

In 1914 Marin began to summer on the Maine coast, which was to become one of his favored painting locales. His first watercolors based on nature showed more reticence than those he had done from urban motifs. Their delicacy of tone and atmospheric effects, despite the use of broken color, related these works more to his experiments in the Tyrol than to the explosive New York views done in his new graphic style. Around 1919, landscape and city views became unified around an abstract, structural core as Marin began to simplify radically, employing what he described as "frames within frames," a free system of rectilinear compartments whose emphatic outlines prevented his "movements" from sliding off the edges of the picture (Figs. 4, 8). "When I got what I wanted," he later wrote, "I nailed the stuff down in those frames." [11]

From the twenties to his death in 1953 Marin continually drew on nature for his motifs. He was endlessly fascinated by the rugged contours of the Maine landscape and the sea, but he transposed his impressions into abstract pictorial design. By way of explanation he wrote: "Seems to me that the true artist must perforce go from time to time to the elemental big forms -- Sky, Sea, Mountain, Plain -- and those things pertaining thereto, to sort of re-true himself up, to recharge the battery. For these big forms have everything. But to express these, you have to love these, to be part of these in sympathy." [12]

After Marin discovered Maine and its seascapes in 1914, it became his most compelling subject matter. For the rest of his life he would consider it his spiritual home. He lived that summer in "a five-dollar shack on a ledge of rock which, at high tide, was only fifteen from the water," Helm noted in his authoritative 1948 biography. Yet Marin reveled in its primitive character, in its qualities of direct, unfiltered experience. "To go anywheres, I have to row, row, row," he said. "Pretty soon I expect the well will give out and I'll then be even obliged to row for water, and as I have to make watercolors -- to Hell with water for cooking, washing, and drinking." [13]

For nearly 40 more years, until his death in 1953, Marin would work with the intensity evident in his determination to paint, at whatever cost, and to express as immediately as possible the effect and "sensations" of his subject matter upon his emotions. He usually worked outdoors in those early years in Maine, though he later found that he could include details in his studio after leaving the outdoor landscape behind; what became supremely important was to establish balance of the motif and its painterly manifestation.

Throughout the war years, during which he was often upset by the fighting, Marin continued exhibiting with Stieglitz -- first at "291", then at the Intimate Gallery and, last, at An American Place. His relations with Stieglitz were intense, too, as is recorded in hundreds of letters between the two, with Marin expounding on his work and ideas, and Stieglitz, who was as much guru as dealer, tracing the artist's rise. Marin painted an estimated 1,600 works during his long career, and although his paintings entered private and museum collections at a steady rate, Stieglitz was his chief link with the wider world until his death in 1946 at the age of 82.

In the twenties and on into the Depression era, Marin continued to evolve in his work, always juggling the idiographic and representational aspects of his work. Impression, (Fig. 4) a dark 1923 study whose gray-black surface is ferociously overlaid with angular lines that suggest a storm, while at the same time framing the work's central section. By contrast, the cluster of tilting house, trees, sailboat and smiling sun in Stonington Harbor; Deer Island Maine, 1924, (Fig. 11) apply many of the same approaches to create an image that is just as lively and compelling, but completely different in tone. Outlines of trees shiver and fade, solid here and ghostly there, while the shadows across a cottage roof are defiantly, radiantly red.

More structures jam the picture plane in Deer Isle, Maine of 1927 (Fig. 13), a watercolor painted from a perspective that is established at a point higher and farther in the distance than his earlier painting. More dreamlike, intense and expressionistic in the dramatic vista formed by the sudden leap from the dark, hieroglyphically encrusted shore to a sailboat in the water, the Deer Isle probes far beneath the surface appearance of a particular landscape, on a certain day, with a certain set of atmospheric and climatic conditions. The painting reveals and underscores Marin's powerful feelings for the motif, as he limns the sea, never losing sight of the fact that it is a concrete, particular sea, with its own quiddity, and not an abstraction.

The ocean is choppier, and less linked with land and people, in Deer Isle, Maine No. 1,1919, (Fig. 5), and Ledges, the Sea, Boat and Sky, Small Point, Maine, 1932, (Fig. 16). In Deer Isle, waves and the shore are chaotically merged, the sky is dotted with a chain of circles hovering over a wave-shaped coastal horizon while in the 1932 oil Ledges, the Sea, Boat and Sky, Small Point, Maine, by contrast, the shore is a vivid slash across the foreground, while the ocean is a dense field of sharp, agitated strokes in bright, opaque, blues. Bands of weighted impasto spell out the sky-hot and blue-white near the sea's surface and a deeper, searing blue at the top of the canvas.

During the early thirties Marin also began for the first time to work consistently in oils, and to make the resistances of the pigment as physical medium do some of the structural work that his more explicit, graphic organization had previously done. His more fluid approach showed a remarkable freedom for a period when abstract and nonfigurative idioms were still dominated by the geometric prejudice of Cubism. By the late thirties and forties, Marin no longer pinpointed expressive effects with graphic descriptive fragments, but depended almost exclusively on a few salient movements, large planes of color, and the expressive potential of the paint itself. His effects were coarser, in obedience to a broader principle, and his strength lay in his intense, vital surfaces, which more than compensated for the elimination of descriptive interest. The references to nature, to a ship's sail, a gull, a horizon line, seemed, indeed, to have been interpolated as an afterthought, or to function entirely as indicatory signs, establishing direction, movement or some necessary plastic accent.

Go to page 1 / 2 / 3 / 4

This is page 2

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

© Copyright 2007 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.