Arthur Garfield Dove spent his early years in Geneva, New York, where his father was a building contractor and brick manufacturer. He attended Hobart College before transferring to Cornell University, from which he graduated in 1903. He then moved to New York City, where he worked as an illustrator for various popular periodicals for several years. In 1908–9, Dove and his wife Florence traveled to France; in Paris, Dove associated with other young American artists such as Alfred Maurer and Max Weber, and his work was included in group exhibitions. Returning to New York, Dove met Alfred Stieglitz, who invited him to submit work to the Younger American Painters exhibition, which also included work by John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Edward J. Steichen, and was held at his gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue in 1910. Dove’s first one-person show was held at 291 in 1912; by then, his place in the artistic avant-garde of the Stieglitz circle was assured.
In 1910 and 1911, Dove created a number of inventive works of art that used stylized, abstract forms at a remarkably early date in American art; he is considered the first American artist to have created such purely nonrepresentational imagery (49.70.77; 49.70.72). As the decade progressed, he was further influenced by Cubism, by the Expressionist work of Vasily Kandinsky, and by the writings of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941), who stressed the importance of a mystical, rather than analytical, understanding of the world. Bergson proposed the existence of an “élan vital,” a spirit or energy that constantly animates all living things in their fight for existence. This idea appealed to Dove, who himself was fascinated with natural cycles of growth and renewal and sought to make those universal harmonies visible in his work. He was also frequently inspired by the parallel between the visual arts and music (49.70.77).
In 1921, Dove left his wife and son for the artist Helen Torr, nicknamed “Reds,” the wife of the illustrator Clive Weed. Dove and Torr (who would eventually marry in 1932) began living together on a houseboat docked at Halesite, on the north shore of Long Island. Dove’s primary subject for his art was the local landscape, which he simplified into its essential forms with expressive color and line (49.70.40). His first-hand experience of the ocean tides, weather patterns, and seasonal cycles also informed these works, as did his quest for a symbolic color effect that he called “a condition of light.” As he described the latter idea in an autobiographical essay (published in Samuel M. Kootz, Modern American Painters, 1930), “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.” During the 1920s, his experiments with various subjects and materials also resulted in a series of collages, several abstract portraits, and still lifes of domestic objects and agricultural machinery (49.70.36). After 291 closed in 1917, he continued to exhibit his work at Stieglitz’s later galleries, the Intimate Gallery (1925–29) and An American Place (1929–46). Through Stieglitz, Dove also established a productive relationship with the patron and collector Duncan Phillips.
When Dove’s mother died in 1933, Dove and his brother became co-executors of the family estate in Geneva, New York. Dove, who had been struggling financially, moved to Geneva with Reds and lived on his family’s property while settling the debt-ridden estate. Despite his reluctance to relocate to Geneva, which he considered provincial, Dove remained there with Reds through 1938. Geneva provided him with new subject matter for his art, including the family farm, the local barnyard animals, and nearby lakes, as well as the city’s more industrial downtown area of warehouses and railroad tracks. Dove made only one trip to New York City during these years, although he maintained a close correspondence with Stieglitz, who would remain a lifelong friend and supporter. In the relative isolation of Geneva, he concentrated more than ever on themes of interdependence between living creatures and their environments (49.70.37; 49.70.75) and on the purely formal appeal of natural objects’ shapes and lines, which he emphasized to the point of abstraction with organic shapes and unexpected color schemes (49.70.96; 2006.32.14). He shared these interests with Georgia O’Keeffe, who was perhaps his closest ally among the other artists of the Stieglitz circle.
In 1938, Dove and Torr returned to Long Island and rented a small house, a former post office that stood directly on the shore of a mill pond in Centerport. Forced to live a sedentary life after a heart attack and a diagnosis of severe kidney disease, Dove found his view confined to the immediate neighborhood around his home. However, he transformed this limitation into a period of experimentation with form and medium. In a diary entry for August 5, 1942, Dove directed himself to work at the “point where abstraction and reality meet” (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution). Some of his works of the 1940s drew inspiration from the local landmarks of his town on the Long Island shore (1992.24.5; 1984.536.1). Coming full circle, he also produced a number of paintings and drawings that are as purely nonrepresentational as the innovative works of his early career.
Dove continued to work into the last year of his life; he died after suffering a heart attack in 1946, only a few months after Stieglitz had passed away. Until his final days, his diary entries recorded his artistic goals alongside observations of the natural surroundings. His reputation continued to grow after his death, and he has been credited with exercising an indirect influence on the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, who placed similar emphasis on the artist’s subjective experience of his surroundings and on the intrinsic emotional power of color and line.