In 1948, Look magazine took a poll of art critics and museum directors to determine America’s greatest artist. John Marin won. But from that pinnacle he soon fell, and now he’s only dimly remembered.
For starters, he looked like an aging Beatle.
An admirer described him as having bangs that reached to his eyebrows, pixieish eyes and carefully styled hair that covered his ears. He dressed the dandy for special occasions in tailored suits, high collars and elegant cravats.
His dress fitted his role as a Modernist painter who brought European-style painting to America. For 25 years John Marin dominated the American art scene with his startling watercolors. His work bordered on abstraction, but remained rooted in nature. He never abandoned his subjects: New England landscapes, the Manhattan skyline and especially the Maine seacoast.
Marin loved nature, country people and artists. He hated intellectuals, sophisticates, critics and scholars – the people who voted him America’s greatest artist and then quickly forgot him.
His mother died nine days after he was born on Dec. 23, 1870 in Rutherford, N.J. His father took him to live with his grandparents and their two unmarried daughters in Weehawken, N.J. He stayed with them for 30 years.
His father wanted him to study business, so he attended the Stevens Institute of Technology for a year. Then he apprenticed as an architect. His aunts knew he hated it and pressured his father to let him go to art school.
His father relented. At 29, John Marin entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and later studied at the Art Students League in New York.
Then in 1905, like many American artists, John Marin went to Paris. He supported himself selling etchings of French landmarks to tourists. He also started playing with watercolors after he fell in love with the work of James McNeill Whistler, Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse.
Painting, he wrote, was ‘a sort of mad wonder dancing.’
In Paris, John Marin encountered Edward Steichen, a photographer working as an art scout for Arthur Stieglitz. Stieglitz, married to Georgia O’Keefe, owned a New York art gallery that showcased avant-garde art. Steichen sent Stieglitz some examples of Marin’s work, and Stieglitz became his champion. From then on, Marin’s paintings sold well until his death.
Stieglitz told John Marin to handle his subjects more abstractly, to use his brush more freely. Marin said he already did. The retort was typical Marin. He was mefiant – defensive.
He once took a train to Princeton to talk to some students. As he got off the train he commented on the conversations he’d overheard: “I disapproved of everything they said.”
At 40, John Marin returned to the United States. He married Marie Hughes in 1912, had a son and bought a house in Cliffside, N.J. He loved his little family, won enormous prestige for his work and led a calm, happy, unadventurous life.
John Marin hated what he called ‘city critters.’ So in 1914 he spent his first summer on the Maine coast, where he found inspiration in the rocks, the water and the trees. Until his death in 1953, he spent every summer but one on the Maine coast in Phippsburg, Stonington and Addison. He bought a lobster boat and a house on Cape Split, and he painted the White Mountains, the Berkshires and the Atlantic Ocean.
“Seems to me the true artist must perforce go from time to time to the elemental big forms — Sky Sea Mountain Plain,” he wrote. “To sort of retrue himself up to recharge the battery. For these big forms have everything. But to express these you have to love these to be a part of these in sympathy. One doesn’t get very far without this love.”
When John Marin died in the fall of 1953, large, abstract expressionist oil paintings held center stage in the art world. Marin had all but disappeared.
In hindsight, art critics offer several explanations. One, he worked in watercolor, an evanescent medium so fragile that curators rarely put them up for permanent exhibit.
Two, the delicacy of watercolor yielded to the fashion of large, so-called action paintings. “By 1950, ferocity was in, delicacy was out,” wrote art critic Paul Robert.
Thirdly, Marin insisted on rooting his art in nature, and abstraction completely took over the art market.
In 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported John Marin, ‘has in recent years fallen into something not far removed from obscurity.’ But that year the tide began to turn. Art museums in Atlanta, Chicago and Portland, Maine, held retrospectives of the work of John Marin.
Today you can see his paintings at the Colby College Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection, the National Gallery of Art and the Arkansas Arts Center.
This story was updated in 2022. Images: Mt. Chocorua, Fair use. Stonington, Maine, Public Domain. The Sea, Public Domain. Sunset, Public Domain.