John Marin III

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John Marin III

Remembered primarily as a watercolorist, the American painter John Marin III (1870-1953) emphasized the rhythmic structure of natural forms through abstraction.

John Marin was born on Dec. 23, 1870, in Rutherford, N. J. His mother died 9 days later. His father was forced to travel, so John grew up with his mother's relations in Delaware and New Jersey. Marin began to draw when he was 8. He attended public schools and spent a year at the Stevens Institute of Technology. His early works in watercolor, though able, do not anticipate later accomplishments. In 1889 he went to New York City, receiving a haphazard training in architecture as an apprentice in various offices. Despite this, in 1893 Marin opened his own office. He designed his own house in Union City as well as six others.

During this time Marin continued painting. When he was 28, he began classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and won a prize for drawings. Even so, he found the prevailing academic approach unproductive and left. Marin did not know what he wanted as much as he knew what he did not. "I was a kid until I was thirty," he said of himself. He admired James McNeill Whistler and imitated him in several of the small oils he did between 1900 and 1905. In 1904 he studied briefly at the Art Students League in New York City.

The following year Marin settled in Paris. His father provided the necessary funds. He made several excursions throughout Europe, to Amsterdam, Belgium, Italy, and London, and was abroad for nearly 5 years. While in Paris he tried etching and continued to paint and had some success. The Mills of Meaux (1906), an oil, was purchased by the French government. Marin was represented at the Salon d'Automne. One of his etchings was included in an issue of the Gazette des beaux-arts and another in L'Art décoratif. His etchings began to sell in 1907.

In 1908 Marin met Alfred Stieglitz, the famous photographer whose New York City art gallery, called "291," was among the first to support modern art in America. Stieglitz may have introduced the art of Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne to Marin. In 1909 Stieglitz exhibited paintings by Alfred Maurer and Marin and the next year gave Marin his first one-man show. Marin, who was then 40, went home briefly for the show but returned to paint in Switzerland. In 1912 he married. He was represented in the celebrated 1913 Armory Show in New York.

Marin's style matured at this time. In his Tirol series, he contrasts the frozen energies of rising mountains with the neat rectilinear ordering of the Swiss village below. He employs a shorthand method to define the dynamic properties of forms. His brush rides lightly on the surface of the coarse paper to suggest light and atmosphere. The white of the paper plays a critical role; forms appear to emerge from it as if coalescing from a flux. The paintings sparkle. The execution suggests spontaneous improvisation held in check by masterful control. In 1912 he interpreted the Woolworth Building, Brooklyn Bridge, and downtown Manhattan in such a fragmented, staccato manner as to threaten structure and stability. Skyscrapers appear futuristically disjointed and twisted, as do the sky and surrounding elements, in a manner suggesting pervasive syncopation and rapid tempo.

Marin's later work advanced little. He and his wife settled in America, and the locale of his painting changed. Now he explored the Maine seacoast and the New England states. In 1929 and 1930 he went to Taos and Santa Fe, N. Mex., making such excursions to paint during the summers. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City gave him a retrospective show in 1936. In 1950 he had a large one-man exhibition at the Venice Biennale, and there were several others later. In the final decade of his life he worked more and more in oil. He died at Cape Split, Maine, on Oct. 1, 1953.

Further Reading

Marin's letters, poetry, and essays were collected in Dorothy Norman, ed., The Selected Writings of John Marin (1949). E. M. Benson, John Marin: The Man and His Work (1935), was the first extended study on Marin. MacKinley Helm, John Marin (1948), offers a more extended picture. The selection of plates is comprehensive, although the quality is generally not satisfying. A recent work, Sheldon Reich, John Marin: A Stylistic Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné (2 vols., 1969), is a scholarly, well-written study.

Additional Sources

John Marin, Chicago: International Film Bureau, 1976. □