John Marin. More derivative than a driver? And played within a small sandpit?


John Marin (1870-1953, 82)

More derivative than a driver? And narrow: played within a small sandpit?

Big time in own time but not now: eclipsed by his US peers!


(Featured image: 1922, The Red Sun, Brooklyn Bridge, watercolor with opaque watercolor, scraping, and wiping, and fabricated charcoal with stumping, on thick, rough-textured, ivory wove paper (all edges trimmed), 542 x 665 mm. Art Institute of Chicago)


  • Important American modernist painter who had his moments
  • He fed off the European pioneers. But:
    • He did not innovate? More derivative than a driver?
    • He was narrowly focussed, monotonous, in subject and style.
    • And stayed there, marked time across near 40 years?
  • Despite closely overlapping a revolution in Modernist art!
  • Always representational, strayed near abstraction but was never abstract.
  • But only ever painted outdoors. No figurative work.
  • Why was he popular in his time? Because he remained generally accessible, and painted appealing distractions from the turmoil and press of modern life.
  • And why forgotten? Eclipsed, ironically, by his barnstorming US peers!



John Marin had his moments

Images which catch include some among the Weehawkin series of pocket-sized oils (early, c1910-16, painted fresh from Europe), like some other early watercolours (Red sun, Brooklyn Bridge, 1915), and later watercolours (Cape Split, Maine, 1941), and some of his later energetic, vigorous expressive seascape oils (like Gray sea, 1938, Two boats and sea, Cape Split, 1941, and Sea and boat fantasy, 1944). Nudes in Sea (1940) is striking too for its figures!?

 But overall he played within a small sandpit?

He was basically a side player? In particular he did not really innovate, remained more derivative than a driver?

And his realist art was narrowly focussed in subject and style, remained broadly within a narrow ambit across about 40 years.

…. a late starter

His known work did not emerge till he was around 40, c1910, with the Weehawkin series (named for the town where he was raised by two aunts, or maternal grandparents?), about 100 small oil sketches completed c1910-16.

But watercolours predominated until when in the 1930s (now in his 60s) he turned also to larger scale oil paintings, though still generally small.

…narrow in subjects.

Thus he only ever painted outdoors, especially landscapes (especially the sea and coasts, especially in Maine) and some cityspaces, especially New York.

He was always representational, like Picasso never abstract, though obviously straying towards, near abstraction in some of his landscapes.

There is virtually no figurative work, even in his urban paintings. No genre paintings, no interiors, still lives and in particular no portraits.

In terms of image content he never painted Modern Life.

… and style.

His art style, in both watercolours and oils, from woe to go remained narrowly constrained: variations on ragged, loose-limbed generally colourful Cubist-hued quasi-abstraction, and later, to an extent, on expressionism.

His early Weehawkin series clearly reflects his pre WW1 exposure to the radical currents in Europe – the bold Fauvist colouring and the dissonant Cubist fragmentation – and some of his later oils recall Expressionism, in brush strokes if not color.

After a burst of color in the Weehawkin series his palate later was generally more muted, less exuberant.

Despite his life overlapping dramatic, radical change in visual art.

His life span, from 1870 to the early 1950s, closely overlapped a revolution in visual art, which moreover he saw first hand when he visited Europe for about 5 years (1905-10, age 35-40) during a dramatic period in modern art.

So his whole career was backdropped by ongoing restless experiment and change in Modernist art: the pre WW1 birth and development of abstraction, the post WW1 eruption of Surrealism.

Marin and Abstract Expressionism?

Through the 1940s his art seems to have interacted with the emerging Abstract Expressionists (AE). Marin in his 70s and well known was no doubt familiar to the emerging younger artists but it’s unclear how much he influenced Pollock et al? Like through his quasi-abstract “Expressionist” landscapes? But he in turn may have fed off the younger artists? Eg his Landscape (1951).

In this AE context however one observation comes to mind, namely the horizontal bands of sky colour Marin uses in at least two modest size watercolours on paper (not oils), from 1940 (Nudes in Sea) and 1941(Cape Split, Maine) clearly resonate with Rothko’s similar later famous Color Field bands.

Once was famous.

Marin is now not well known to the lay public, outside the museums and galleries, but his acclaim grew steadily in his time so by later in his career he was among the most esteemed living artists in America.

Thus in 1942, critic Clement Greenberg enthused: “it is quite possible that he is the greatest living American painter.” And “In 1948 a Look magazine poll of museum directors and critics had him as American’s foremost artist. And in 1950 he was the most prominently featured artist in Alfred Barr’s selection of seven painters — including Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock — for the American pavilion of the 25th Venice Biennale.” (Ken Johnson, New York Times, August 2011)

Why was he so popular in his lifetime?

Probably because through his landscapes he remained generally accessible, because his style was fashionably “modern” but not radical. Thus he did not succumb to abstraction.

But also his oeuvre definitely leans toward an aesthetic purpose and not towards any uncomfortable polemical or didactic mission.

Unlike some other modern realist painters – like David Bomberg, Stuart Davis, Fernand Leger – he never painted, engaged with Modern Life, except for a passing reference to skyscrapers in New York.

Thus generally he painted appealing distractions from the turmoil and press of modern life, did not comment on it.

And why no longer popular?

Because he was overtaken, eclipsed by fashionable new twists in the rollicking onward journey of modern art, and (ironically) especially by events in his US homeland, by the post WW2 rush for Abstract Expressionism (the New York School, their success partly driven by the buoyant “victorious” relatively prosperous US), thence by Pop and beyond.


John Marin was born and raised in New Jersey, early worked as an architectural draughtsman, then 1899 to 1901 studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He called at the Art Students League in NY in 1905 before that year travelling to Europe for 5 years (visiting Paris, Holland, Belgium, England, Italy, and Austrian Tyrol in 1910), returning permanently to NY in 1911.

Alfred Stieglitz staged his first one man show in 1909 at his Gallery 291 in New York, and the pair worked together 40 years (as he also supported O’Keefe and Arthur Dove). In 1913 he exhibited in the famous Armory Show.

He strongly preferred landscapes, usually wintered in New Jersey, then often summered in northeastern rural locations, especially coastal Maine.

His first retrospective was in 1920, in NY. Early 1926 collector Duncan Phillips bought his first Marin, and became a big supporter. 1936 MOMA held a retrospective, one of the first for an American artist.

Beyond Maine, Marin visited Europe (though only once), New England, New Mexico (around Taos) and the Hudson River Valley.


 Select Works……………


c1916. Weehawken sequence No. 30, oil on canvas board, 11 3/4 x 9 in, Phillips Collection



1925. Back of Bear Mountain, watercolor and charcoal, 43 x 51cm (17 x 20 in.), Phillips Collection



1938. Grey Sea, oil on canvas, 55.9 x 71.1cm, National Gallery, Washington


1940. Nudes in Sea, Watercolor with blotting, wiping, and scraping, and black crayon, with brown colored pencil, on heavyweight, moderately textured, ivory wove paper (all edges trimmed), in original frame, 39.1 x 53.3cm; Art Institute of Chicago


_16, 10/15/10, 2:49 PM, 8C, 4790×5887 (246+602), 88%, Custom, 1/60 s, R116.1, G89.6, B85.8

  1.  Sea and boat fantasy. Oil on canvas, 71 x 87cm (28 × 34 1/4 in.). Private?



  1. Hurricane. Oil on canvas, 64 cm × 76 cm (25 x 30 in.), Indianapolis Museum of Art.



  1.  Landscape, collection?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s