John Marin is especially noted for his representations of the Maine coast, a place for which he felt a particular affinity. In 1933, Marin spent his first summer on Cape Split in Addison, Maine, a remote, sparsely populated, and rugged area far removed from tourist traffic. The following year he bought a house there. Situated on a rocky promontory overlooking Pleasant Bay, the location afforded a uniquely personal view of the sea, which was only about 25 feet away. Marin spent a considerable amount of time on his front porch painting this view in 1938.
Grey Sea, one of Marin’s most evocative marine images, is not rendered in watercolor, the predominant medium of his career, but rather oil, a medium he began to explore more extensively beginning in the late 1920s. His exuberant, expressionistic brushwork has allowed him to achieve an astonishing variety of textures, ranging from thick twists of heavily applied paint seemingly squeezed directly from the tube, to short, straight brushstrokes, to smoothly flowing passages, and even, by way of contrast, to a reserved area of raw, untouched canvas at the bottom center of the picture offset by the swirling pigments around it—effects that could not have been achieved with watercolor. The vigorous technique conveys a vivid sense of a primal, elemental clash between sea, sky, and land. The ocean’s waves are rendered as stylized, triangular configurations that assume their shape as they emerge from the ocean, only to be broken into formless, churning whitewater after striking the rocks on the shore. Imparting a rhythmic sense to the composition’s surface, Marin derived these abstract forms from his observations of natural phenomena and his visceral connection to the dynamic, underlying forces of nature.
In 1933, John Marin spent his first summer on Cape Split in Addison, Maine. He experienced an immediate affinity for this remote, sparsely populated, and rugged area so far removed from tourist traffic. The following year, the Marins bought a house in South Addison that was built on a rocky promontory overlooking Pleasant Bay. Marin spent a considerable amount of time on his open front porch painting the sea, which was only about 25 feet away. In 1936, he informed Stieglitz: “Here the Sea is so damned insistent that houses and land things won’t appear much in my pictures.”
John Marin to Alfred Stieglitz, Sept. 10, 1936, quoted in Dorothy Norman, ed., The Selected Writings of John Marin (New York, 1949), 171.
Edwin Alden Jewell, “A Marin Retrospective,” New York Times, Oct. 25, 1936.
Ruth Fine, John Marin (Washington, DC, 1990), 237
Grey Sea, one of Marin’s most evocative marine images, is not rendered in watercolor, the predominant medium of his career, but rather oil, a medium he began to explore more extensively beginning in the late 1920s.
On Marin’s late oils, see William Agee, “John Marin’s Greatness: The Late Oils & Post-1945 Art,” in John Marin: The Late Oils (New York, 2008), 6–21.
Marin represented the ocean’s waves as stylized, triangular configurations that assume their shape as they emerge from the sea, only to be broken into formless, churning whitewater after striking the rocks on the shore. In Grey Sea, small triangles are scattered along the bottom foreground, and a single large one appears in the center of the composition, leaning toward the shore. Imparting a rhythmic sense to the composition’s surface, Marin derived these abstract forms from his observations of natural phenomena and his visceral connection to the dynamic, underlying forces of nature.
Marin had begun using geometric forms as part of his visual vocabulary in 1931, a tendency that would later reach one of its most extreme manifestations in The Fog Lifts
As early as 1917, Marin was enthusiastically describing the distinctive coastline of Maine to
John Marin to Alfred Stieglitz, July 31, 1917, quoted in Dorothy Norman, ed., The Selected Writings of John Marin (New York, 1949), 35.
For Homer’s influence on Marin, see Bruce Robertson, Reckoning with Winslow Homer: His Late Paintings and Their Influence (Cleveland, OH, 1990), 149–153
At the Venice Biennale in the summer of 1950, John Marin was featured along with Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and others.
Lee Krasner, “Interview with Bruce Glaser,” 1967, in Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel, eds., Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews (New York, 1999), 28.
September 29, 2016
lower right: Marin 38
The artist [1870-1953]; his estate; by inheritance to his son, John C. Marin, Jr. [1914-1988], Cape Split, Maine; gift 1987 to NGA.
- John Marin: Paintings, An American Place, New York, 1938, as Grey and Green Sea.
- John Marin 1870-1953, The University of Arizona Art Gallery, Tucson, 1963, no. 94, as Gray Sea.
- John Marin, The Willard Gallery, New York, 1965, no. 12.
- American Masters: Art Students League, organized by the American Federation of the Arts, New York, circulated 1967-1968, no. 33, repro.
- John Marin in Maine, Portland Museum of Art, Maine, 1985, no. 58.
- Selections and Transformations: The Art of John Marin, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1990, pl. 220.
- Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2001, no. 132, repro.
- John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury, Portland (Maine) Museum of Art; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth; Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, 2011-2012, unnumbered catalogue, pl. 5.
- Reich, Sheldon. John Marin: Part I, A Stylistic Analysis; Part II, Catalogue Raisonné. 2 vols. Tucson, 1970:, 2:no. 38.14, 691, repro.
- Southgate, M. Therese. "The Cover: John Marin, Grey Sea." Journal of the American Medical Association 260 (14 October 1988): 2004, cover repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 178, no. 66, color repro.
- Fine, Ruth E. John Marin. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Washington and New York, 1990: 228, pl. 220.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 232, repro.
- National Gallery of Art. Highlights from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Washington, 2016: 304, repro.
The painting is executed on a coarsely woven, plain-weave fabric that has been wax-lined to a fiberglass fabric and stretched onto a nonoriginal stretcher. All the original tacking margins are preserved. The ground is a commercially prepared, thin, grey-white layer.
The priming covers all of the tacking margins, indicating that the canvas was primed before painting. This usually indicates that the priming was commercially prepared rather than applied by the artist.