Moth Dance is a playful, inventive image painted at the end of a decade of personal and professional transitions for the artist. In 1929 Arthur Dove married his longtime partner, Helen Torr, reconciled with his son, and exhibited regularly with Alfred Stieglitz. He completed this painting of a swaying moth while he and Torr lived on their boat in Halesite, New York.
Moths and butterflies both belong to the insect order Lepidoptera, and Dove was likely inspired by the butterflies he had seen at the American Museum of Natural History when conceptualizing Moth Dance. His insect has reptilian eyes with vertical black lines for pupils that slash outward beyond the top and bottom rims. Waving antennae emerge from the thorax like arms (rather than from the top of the head) and drift off beyond the picture plane. The moth has two brilliantly colored sets of wings: the top set are a dark bluish-green spotted with white and abstracted into one continuous oval; the bottom wings extend from the body in a bright teal that darkens to black at the tips. Two delicate black feet swerve to the left from the lower end of the moth’s body, completing an S-curve that begins with the antennae. Dove used the moth’s vibrant color to convey an abstract idea. He was striving to document exactly how the insect’s fluttering movements evoked joy and passion, or as he put it, “the life going on in that individual entity.”
A diary entry of Thursday, July 18, 1929—likely written by Arthur Dove’s partner and fellow artist Helen Torr—describes the day that Dove began work on Moth Dance. After a morning visit to his doctor in Manhattan, the artist repaired to his studio and “came over with swell start of painting ‘The Dance of the Moth.’” A later entry, for November 24, 1929, notes, “then he finished painting of ‘Amorous Moth’ and cut out frame for it.”
Dove and Torr kept a diary together, though in 1929 their often telegraphic notes were written primarily by Torr. At the time the two were living on their boat Mona moored at the Ketewomoke Yacht Club in Halesite, on the north shore of Long Island, about 40 miles east of Manhattan. They stayed there rent-free in exchange for serving as the club’s caretakers. Dove had a makeshift studio on board the boat. Archives of American Art, Arthur and Helen Torr Dove Papers, Box 2, Folder 3: Diaries, 1927–1945.
The concise, elliptical visual language of Moth Dance reflects, in part, Dove’s experience as a magazine illustrator. Dove supported himself with his illustrations for several years after graduating from college, and he continued to supplement his income with illustration work even after deciding to pursue a career as a fine artist. His January 30, 1904 cover for the Illustrated Sporting News
Though Dove was certainly capable of rendering fauna in greater and more realistic detail, as seen in his illustrations for the 1905
For a full discussion of Monkey Fur, see Rachael Z. DeLue, Arthur Dove: Always Connect (Chicago, 2016), 243–244.
The August 4 date is derived from diary entries: Archives of American Art, Arthur and Helen Torr Dove Papers, Box 2, Folder 3: Diaries, 1927–1945 and Box 2, Folder 15: Excerpts (1925–1939), undated.
In a letter to Samuel M. Kootz excerpted in his 1930 book Modern American Painters, Dove stressed the role of color and light in his work:
There was a long period of searching for a something in color which I then called “a condition of light.” It applied to all objects in nature, flowers, trees, people, apples, cows. These all have their certain condition of light, which establishes them to the eye, to each other, and to the understanding. To understand that clearly go to nature, or to the Museum of Natural History and see the butterflies. Each has its own orange, blue, black; white, yellow, brown, green and black, all carefully chosen to fit the character of the life going on in that individual entity.
Samuel M. Kootz, Modern American Painters (New York, 1930), 37
Moths and butterflies both belong to the insect order Lepidoptera and Dove was likely inspired by the butterflies he had seen at the American Museum of Natural History when conceptualizing Moth Dance. He used the moth’s vibrant color (or “condition of light”) to convey an abstract idea. The references to dance and an “amorous” moth associated with the painting indicate that Dove was striving to communicate, through precise visual means, exactly how the insect’s fluttering movements evoked joy and passion.
Moth Dance punctuates the end of a decade of personal and professional transitions in Dove’s life. In 1921 he left his wife, Florence Dove, for Torr, who was also married, and the following year he and Torr moved onto their boat, Mona. Dove’s new relationship and the death of his father, who was not supportive of his son’s artistic career, inspired him to resume painting regularly in the summer of 1921 after a lull dating back to 1917. He began to exhibit more often, and starting in 1926 he had annual solo shows sponsored by Alfred Stieglitz. When Florence died unexpectedly in September 1929, Dove married Torr and began to reconcile with his son, William, whom he had not been permitted to see after the separation.
Art historian Ann Lee Morgan has noted that the dramas of Dove’s personal life during the 1920s are manifest in his work of this time. He “experimented more with materials, subjects, and styles than any other time. He pondered the question of pure painting, he explored the possibilities of assemblage, and he experimented with techniques related to those espoused by surrealism for opening up the unconscious.”
Ann Lee Morgan, Arthur Dove: Life and Work, with a Catalogue Raisonné (Newark, DE, 1984), 53
Moth Dance was shown in Dove’s 1930 solo exhibition at Stieglitz’s An American Place gallery in New York. New York Times reviewer Edward Alden Jewell singled out the painting, noting “You will treasure the exquisite color values in Moth Dance, as well as in several other poems.”
Edward Alden Jewell, “Concerning Mr. Dove,” New York Times, Mar. 30, 1930.
Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Art Institute of Chicago director Daniel Catton Rich, December 18, 1948, as quoted in Sarah Greenough, Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set; The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Photographs (Washington, DC, 2002), L n. 5. For more on O’Keeffe’s selection of the National Gallery of Art, see the opening essay to this catalog, Charles Brock, “American Modernism and the National Gallery of Art: ‘The Perfect Place.’”
August 17, 2018
lower right: Dove
Alfred Stieglitz [1864-1946], New York; by inheritance to his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe [1887-1986], Abiquiú, New Mexico; gift 1949 to NGA.
- History of an American. Alfred Stieglitz: "291" and After; Selections from the Stieglitz Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1944, no. 257.
- American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 48, repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 144, repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 150, repro.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: repro. 234, 237.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 172, repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 160, repro.
- Kirsh, Andrea, and Rustin S. Levenson. Seeing Through Paintings: Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies. Materials and Meaning in the Fine Arts 1. New Haven, 2000: 264.