John Marin painted The Written Sea in 1952, when he was 82 years old, and it is considered one of the masterpieces of his late career, during which oil painting played a central role in his practice. His tendency toward abstraction by using a calligraphic line to capture a sense of the sea’s movement reflects his awareness of the younger painters of the New York school, such as Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, whose growing reputations would soon come to supplant his own. The painting retains Marin’s original hand-painted frame, designed to be an integral part of the composition that suggests the possibility of engaging in reflective and peaceful thought while looking out from the shoreline toward the tumultuous sea off the Maine coast.
“The oldest living American practitioner in oils and watercolor is still, apparently, the best.”
Henry McBride, “Ageless Marin,” Artnews 51 (Feb. 1953): 58. This entry is a revised version of text that was originally published in Charles Brock, Nancy Anderson, and Harry Cooper, American Modernism: The Shein Collection (Washington, DC, 2010).
The Written Sea was among the oils on view in the Downtown Gallery exhibition, and in its title Marin tacitly acknowledged the boldly calligraphic aspect of his project. Painted when the artist was in his eighties, The Written Sea is a pinnacle of Marin’s late career, during which oil painting played a central role in his practice. William Agee has called The Written Sea “one of the most glorious bursts of old-age art in the 20th century, matched only by Picasso, Matisse, and Hofmann.”
William Agee, “John Marin’s Greatness: The Late Oils & Post-1945 Art,” in John Marin: The Late Oils (New York, 2008), 15.
Robert Hughes, “Art: Fugues in Space,” Time (Feb. 22, 1971): 62.
Marin made oil paintings throughout his working life, although in smaller numbers and less consistently than the watercolors that brought him his greatest fame. The earliest known oils date to 1907 and depict industrial mills in Meaux, France, painted during the artist’s years in Europe (1905 – 1910), during which he also created approximately 100 etchings: spirited evocations of buildings, bridges, and waterways in France, Germany, Holland, and Italy that Marin drew on copper with a sharply pointed tool, bit with acid, inked, and printed.
The etchings are recorded in Carl Zigrosser, The Complete Etchings of John Marin (Philadelphia, 1969).
In general, Marin’s canvases received less exposure and, consequently, less critical attention than his works on paper, both during his lifetime and posthumously.
On Marin’s oils see Klaus Kertess, Marin in Oil (Southampton, NY, 1987).
Unfortunately, this continues; see Karen Rosenberg, “Art in Review: John Marin,” The New York Times (Dec. 19, 2008): C28. Writing about two Marin exhibitions in New York — one of watercolors at Meredith Ward Fine Art, the other of late oils at Adelson Galleries — Rosenberg concluded that the shows affirmed Marin “was a singularly talented water-colorist and a so-so oil painter.”
With financial assistance from Dorothy Norman, Marin and O’Keeffe kept An American Place open for occasional exhibitions through 1950.
MacKinley Helm discussed the Weehawken Sequence in John Marin (New York, 1948), 9. Hilton Kramer agreed with this early date in his eponymous essay in John Marin: The Painted Frame (New York, 2000), 13, n. 3. In Sheldon Reich’s two-volume John Marin: A Stylistic Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné (Tucson, AZ, 1970), the paintings are discussed extensively on pages 85 – 95. This writer’s views are laid out in Ruth Fine, John Marin (Washington, DC, 1990), 119.
Apart from the Weehawken images, Marin worked in oil only occasionally until the early 1930s, about the time he began to spend summers at Cape Split, Nova Scotia. At that point his work on canvas blossomed, and the interplay among methods he employed in watercolor and in oil enhanced his achievements in both. Through the 1930s he often worked the watercolors more heavily than previously, with broadly painted layers of color modified by the sort of vigorous rubbing out that would more readily be expected with oil. Moving into the 1940s, this emphasis on weight shifted, and the important role paper plays in watercolor inserted itself into the oils, which often were marked by expanses of open canvas. (There was neither a sharp break in the artist’s methodology, nor any consistent overall change; instead, new approaches were added to his array of processes.) During these years, Marin increasingly made use of an ink line in the watercolors, enhancing the drama of many compositions. This important linear component soon found its way into the oils as well.
The complexity of Marin’s approach is vividly exemplified in The Written Sea. The matte white of primed but otherwise unpainted canvas is highlighted by touches of brilliant white oil paint, thickly applied in abundant daubs and strokes. Similarly varied are the dancing marks of rich umber, deep blue, and bright red that create the registers of rocks, sea, and sky typical of Marin’s Maine seascapes, seen previously in Sunset. Bracketing the horizon line in both works are suggestions of sailing vessels, likewise essential to Marin’s Maine. The palette Marin employed in The Written Sea is more limited in its number of hues than is usual in the oils, as is its essentially out-of-the-tube nature. More commonly Marin’s oil colors are subdued by intermixing. However, the limited palette references on a larger scale the lively color touches that play a crucial role in Marin’s sketchbook pages, in particular those that feature the circus, a favored topic in Marin’s later years
The Circus sketchbooks offer clues not only to Marin’s palette, but also to his compositional structures
Two years after purchasing his home at Cape Split, Marin wrote to Stieglitz that “here the sea is so damned insistent that houses and land things won’t appear much in my pictures.”
Letter from Marin to Stieglitz, Addison, Maine, Sept. 10, 1935, in Dorothy Norman, ed., The Selected Writings of John Marin (New York, 1949), 171
Filling sketchbooks and drawing on loose sheets of paper had been an essential part of Marin’s image-development strategy dating back to his teens. Throughout his life, etchings, watercolors, and oils were developed from brief studies in graphite, ink, crayon, and watercolor, often in combination. Many drawings were torn from sketchbooks by the artist himself, and others have been dismantled. Eighteen books donated to the National Gallery of Art, either by John Marin Jr. or Norma Boom Marin, track the range of his subjects and styles. New York skyscrapers as well as populous city street scenes, the Maine landscape and water views, and the circus are all well represented. Sheets that are essentially painted in watercolor are not included in Reich, but an entire sketchbook from 1952 is reproduced in Ruth Fine, John Marin (Washington, DC, 1990), 272 – 275. It shows the range of Marin’s approach during a limited period of time.
While developing new ways of working, Marin also reflected on his life. In the 1950s he made oil paintings based on photographs by Stieglitz dating to decades earlier, for example of his mother and of himself with his parents. These subjects were reflective of past experience, yet Marin’s thought processes required new methodology, a distillation of form not from nature but instead derived from flat photographic images that equally became a source for spatial “movements” on canvas.
The Written Sea pushes at the outer edges of Marin’s late, highly experimental style, which is marked by a shift from his early work not only in method, but also in attitude. Clearly Marin was aware of the younger painters of the New York school, whose growing reputations would soon come to supplant his own. Most evident in The Written Sea is his awareness of the art of
Louis Finkelstein, “Marin and de Kooning,” Magazine of Art 43 (Oct. 1950): 202 – 206.
A special aspect of The Written Sea is that it retains Marin’s original hand-painted frame.
See John Marin: The Painted Frame, with an essay by Hilton Kramer (New York, 2000). The Written Sea serves as the frontispiece for Kramer’s essay.
In the early 1930s Marin occasionally painted complex borders around the edges of his oils on canvas, soon to be followed by wooden frames that he carved and painted, like the one seen here. One can only suspect that many paintings no longer so framed were presented that way originally. The frames would have been subsequently removed by their owners — unfortunately, as it is clear that the framing element was essential to Marin’s concept of the work as a whole. In the case of The Written Sea, the frame is relatively spare compared to others of the period that enclose Maine mountain landscapes and New York cityscapes. It suggests the possibility of engaging in reflective and peaceful thought while looking out from the shoreline (only one of many ways to experience the sea), in contrast to the daily tumult of much of our worldly experience.
Some months after The Written Sea was completed, Marin discussed his art, and specifically his approach to the sea, with critic Emily Genauer:
The sea, for instance, wants to be horizontal, but then the horizontals begin to play, to move. Sympathetic lines turn up all over the canvas, a diagonal here, a patch of color there, all related to each other, all echoes of each other, all living together, all adding up to a total shape, but always adding up to life.
Quote in Emily Genauer, “Marin’s Shorthand,” New York Herald Tribune, Sunday Magazine (Dec. 28, 1952), Marin Family Papers, Clippings 1952 – 1953.
September 29, 2016
lower right: Marin 52
The artist's daughter-in-law, Norma B. Marin; (Meredith Ward Fine Art, New York); purchased 2006 by Deborah and Ed Shein, Providence; gift 2009 to NGA.
- John Marin Exhibition, The Downtown Gallery, New York, 1952-1953.
- John Marin, The Philadelphia Art Alliance, 1954, no. 44.
- John Marin, Art Galleries of the University of California, Los Angeles, 1955-1956, no. 36.
- John Marin, Arts Council Gallery, London, 1956, no. 29.
- John Marin, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1970, no. 154.
- Marin in Oil, The Parris Art Museum, Southampton, New York, 1987, no. 53.
- John Marin, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1990, no. 250, repro.
- John Marin: The Painted Frame, Richard York Gallery, New York, 2000, no. 34.
- John Marin: The Late Oils, Adelson Galleries, New York, 2008, no. 12.
- American Modernism: The Shein Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2010-2011, no. 12, 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. 57.
The painting is executed on a medium-weight, plain-weave canvas that was pre-primed with a white ground. It is still on its original stretcher and therefore retains its original dimensions. The paint was applied directly, much like a colored drawing, leaving most of the ground visible in the final image. Infrared examination shows no additional underdrawing serving as a guide for the painting.
The infrared examination was conducted using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera fitted with a J astronomy filter.
- Art News 51 (February 1953): 58.
- Faison, Jr., S. Lane. “Art.” The Nation 176 (7 February 1953): 133.
- Gray, Cleve, ed. John Marin by John Marin. New York, 1970: 171, repro.
- Reich, Sheldon. John Marin: A Stylistic Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1970, pp. 235-236, no. 52.50.
- Hughes, Robert. "Fugues in Space." Time (22 February 1971): 62.
- Smith, Roberta. "Art: John Marin's Oils at an L.I. Museum." The New York Times (14 August 1987).
- Tuchman, Phyllis. "Another Marin." Art in America 76 (June 1988): 59, repro.
- Fine, Ruth E. "John Marin, an Art Fully Resolved." In Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2000: 351-352, repro.
- Brock, Charles, Nancy Anderson, and Harry Cooper. American Modernism: The Shein Collection. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2010: no. 12, repro.