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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

John Marin

John Marin, 1940
If one were to make a list of famous oil painters from the 20th century, it would be as long as your arm...probably both of them. By the same token, if one were to make up a similar list of famous watercolor painters...well, the fingers of one hand, two at the most, would suffice. Probably at the top of that list would be Winslow Homer, second, or at least not very far down the list, would be the name of John Marin. Though popular among artists for his painterly technique and intimate feeling for nature, Homer is popular with the general public mostly for his basically realistic style. John Marin is comparable in most other ways to Homer, except for a persistent aversion to realism, which would explain why most people have never  heard of him. Yet, back in the late 1940s, Look magazine reported that Marin had been voted by other artists and museum directors as the most important working artist in the United States. A list of honorary degrees, retrospectives, and print reproductions from shortly before his death in 1953 would tend to support this thesis.

Schooner Yachts, Deer Island, Maine, 1932,
watercolor, John Marin
John Marin acutely felt this dichotomy with regard to his appeal.  Alfred Stieglitz, who for all intents and purposes, "discovered" his fellow-American artist during the five years Marin bummed around Europe ostensibly studying art, once confided to Marin, "The reason people don't like your work is it's over their heads." While probably true, in fact, the same could be said, of course, for dozens of other artists working at the time. However, Marin's work was "over the heads" of many of these same artists as well. As abstract as many of Marin's paintings tend to be, the artist had no patience with his peers whose work came strictly "out of their heads." Everything he did was grounded in "seeing." Many of his paintings have a sort of "montage" quality, as if the artist could not for long concentrate on a single aspect of his surroundings but instead, painted first one thing then another, a landscape of cascading details, not unlike a cubist approach, trying to paint one subject from many different viewpoints. In fact, though a contemporary of Picasso, there is much Cubism in Marin's work...this mixed with a hefty dose of Impressionism.

Small Point, Maine, 1932, oil, John Marin
Born in 1870, Marin's mother died when he was nine days old. Raised by his material grandparents in Weehawken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson from New York City, Marin began working with watercolors at the age of eight, and was taking extensive, hunting, fishing, and painting trips to the mountains by the time he was a teenager. However he chose architecture as a career, and worked at it for eleven years before deciding to devote himself to painting. Studies at the Pennsylvania Academy, the Art Student's League, and in Europe developed his talent for painting modest, intimate watercolors of nature...not landscapes in the usual sense...but more like "nature sketches." After a struggle, he came to oil painting, but his real love was watercolor, though many of them displayed a strongly opaque quality, with brilliant, intense, undiluted hues, making them not that unlike oil paintings. Today, no American art museum's collection is complete without examples of Marin's work in both mediums. And, it is to our discredit that some eighty years after Stieglitz proclaimed it "over (our) heads," and some 58 years after the artist's death, much of Marin's work still retains that lofty status.

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