“The most important single factor to influence the course of Marin's development since 1925,” wrote E. M. Benson, in the catalogue to Marin’s first monographic show at the Museum of Modern Art, “was his return to oil painting, a medium which he never completely abandoned, though he pursued it less diligently than watercolor or etching” [E. M. BENSON in John Marin: Watercolors Oil Paintings Etchings (1936), p. 32]. Benson, writing in 1936, could not have known that Marin would go through another lapse from oil, followed by another triumphant return, at the very end of his career.
This reawakening of interest in oil painting had its origin mainly in the fact that since 1919 Marin had been doing an increasing amount of work in his studio rather than directly before nature. “I find that now working out of doors tires me," he wrote to Stieglitz in the fall of 1919. “I don't get what I want any more and seem to think I can do better visualizing what I have experienced through my eyes.” As a result he became gradually less dependent on the immediate external stimulus and more concerned with the architectonic anatomy of his art. [E. M. BENSON in John Marin: Watercolors Oil Paintings Etchings (1936), p. 32-3].
Benson perhaps overstated Marin’s retreat from observed realism—he would continue to paint from observation for the rest of his life—but the rapid ascent toward abstraction in the 1920s is undeniable. The present work, along with perhaps a small handful of others, is a signal example. The bounding boxes and brisk lines of energy are all present in this early example of Marin’s mature style, including the brilliant sun in the upper left. Paul Rosenfeld wrote of Marin’s work in 1921:
The realism turns very suddenly, inexplicably, into unrealistic, ghostly expressionistic art. Little complexes of colour, gold and red and yellow, little nuclei of painted jewels, appear poured out of the unknown regions of the mind. One is reminded again and again of Blake, a Blake uniliterary and master of his prophetic medium. Nature has given her lover back again to himself, and permitted him to develop in the strength of his spirit [as quoted by Fine, Ibid., p. 191].
Marin’s suns of the 1920s—little nuclei of painted jewels—impressed his collectors as well as his colleagues. The Blakean mysticism, too, seduced Marin’s modernist peers later in the decade, as Oscar Bluemner, Arthur Dove, and Charles Burchfield produced their own meditations on the radiant orb. The present work’s closest kin is perhaps a watercolor of the same year, Movement, Sea and Sun (1921, watercolor and charcoal on paper, 13 ½ x 17 inches, ex. coll. of Dorothy Norman). While the watercolor features “the sun dancing across the sky [in a] motif that was to reappear frequently in Marin’s art, suggest[ing] the passage of time,” the present work features a single sun with “enclosure forms lock[ing] in the individual elements” [Ibid., p. 191]. Both were likely painted in Maine, and both share the treatment of the sun: a gold circle with read parentheses-like marks around them.
But Benson, in 1936, perhaps described the most important difference between the watercolor and the oil, and the man who made them:
In contrast with the swiftness of watercolor execution, the new discipline of working on an oil in shifts over a long period, must have fallen “like cold chains” upon this Ishmaelite who “never sat with his wings furled for six months together” [E. M. BENSON in John Marin: Watercolors Oil Paintings Etchings (1936), p. 32-3].
The artist; to His estate, until the present
Richard York Gallery, New York, John Marin: The Painted Frame, October 12-December 9, 2000, no. 5, illus. in color
Sheldon Reich, John Marin: A Stylistic Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. II, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1970, p. 488, no. 21.43, illus.