John Marin (1870 – 1953) was a major early modernist, best known for his watercolors, but who also worked in oils and made many etchings. Born in Rutherford, NJ, he had begun sketching with some seriousness by 1888. His earliest watercolors combined elements of Impressionism and Tonalism. They show the influence of Tonalists such as Dwight Tryon and also reveal some aberrations of form Marin would develop later. In the early 1890s, he worked for four architects and by 1893 had designed six houses in Union Hill, NJ. Deciding to become an artist, he studied at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1899 to 1901 under Thomas Anshutz and at Art Student’s League from 1901 to 1903. Marin went abroad I 1905 and remained there until 1910 with the exception of a brief return visit in 1909. Unlike others who traveled to Europe in those years, he did not immediately become immersed in the most modern styles, preferring instead the art of James A. M. Whistler, Pierre Bonnard, and the Nabis as well as Neoimpressionism. Nevertheless, he met Edward Steichen and, through him, Alfred Stieglitz, who exhibited his work with Alfred Maurer’s in 1909 and then gave him a solo exhibition in 1910. His subjects were most often urban ones. After returning to America, Marin substituted New York City for Paris and Venice as an important subject.

Marin first went to Maine in 1914, and the many seascapes he painted there until the very end of his life reflect an intimacy with the northern ocean as profound as that of Winslow Homer. His œuvre consists of urban and rural scenes in roughly equal numbers. Many of the rural pictures he painted about 1920 have been characterized by one historian as “color orgasms,” for, in painting pure color sensations, it seemed as though Marin were trying to convey the living, dynamic energies of nature. His urban scenes capture, in unregimented, freeflowing brushwork, the excitement of the modern city. Like his near-contemporary George Bellows, Marin responded emotionally to the forces of life, but in abstract rather than anecdotal ways. Like Arthur G. Dove, another near-contemporary and fellow abstractionist, Marin brought to his pictures a vital energy that evoked, but did not replicate the movements and powers he felt residing in his subjects.

Marin wrote about himself and his art in a Whitmanesque manner, celebrating both nature and his responses to it in a grand way. The major collection of his etchings is in the Philadelphia Museum. Many watercolors and oils are in MoMA.

Sheldon Reich, John Marin, 1970