His Life

Arthur Dove with one of his paintings, Geneva, New York, mid-1930s

Arthur Dove (1880-1946), son of the Dove Block’s builder, William Dove, was born in nearby Canandaigua, New York, in 1880, and moved to Geneva when he was two. There he grew up, an experience which would fuel his love of nature and his art for the rest of his life. He attended Hobart College for two years before moving on to Cornell University in Ithaca, earning his degree in 1903. During his Cornell time, he took courses in painting and drawing. Upon graduation, much to his father’s displeasure (who wanted his eldest son to take over his brick making business), he began a career as an art illustrator in New York City. Very successful in this capacity, he soon chaffed at the restrictions of the medium and began to feel a need to create art based on his own vision.

In 1909, he and his wife, the former Florence Dorsey of Geneva, traveled to France so that he could study the works of a group of new artists who were on the verge of gaining international acclaim—Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Ferdinand Léger, and Constantine Brancusi.  The experience changed his life. Although he would continue to illustrate—so that he could earn enough to live—for some decades, he had now determined that he would now devote himself to fine art as his life’s work, using the inspiration of the French artists for his own starting point.

Returning to New York in 1909, he immediately set to work in this new vein, becoming America’s first abstract painter in the process. Along with his dear New York friends, photographer Alfred Stieglitz and artist Georgia O’Keeffe, he became, along with other innovative artists like John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Thomas Hart Benton, one of the acknowledged founders of “American Modernism.”

Helen “Reds” Torr

During the mid-1930s, following his mother’s death (his father had died in 1921), his marriage with Florence now over, he returned to Geneva with his partner (they would later marry), the artist Helen “Reds” Torr to settle the family estate.

For a time, the couple lived on a nearby family farm while Dove, hoping to make some money in the midst of the Great Depression, tried his hand at various tasks—raising chickens, growing crops. All these proving unsuccessful, accepting the financial support of the art collector, Duncan Phillips (later the founder of the world-famous Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., which houses the largest collection of Dove’s work in the world, Dove and Torr moved to the third-floor of the Dove Block, which, since the late 1870s, his father had operated as a successful commercial building. The move allowed Dove to concentrate exclusively on his painting and drawing. While residing in the Dove Block, he painted nearly a hundred of what are now seen as his most critically-acclaimed works, including what is perhaps his most famous, “Red Sun,” an abstract vision of the sun rising over Geneva’s Lake Seneca, with the area’s surrounding fields in the foreground. (The picture is now at The Phillips Collection.)

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Red Sun, 1935

In 1938, the family estate at last settled, Dove and Torr moved to Long Island to be nearer the increasingly popular modern art scene in New York City. There, as his health continued to fail, Dove continued painting until his death in 1946. Torr survived him until 1967.

In the introduction to Arthur Dove: A Retrospective (MIT Press 1998), Dove’s work is characterized as “possess(ing) a radical content that came from the description of intangible elements such as movement, space, and above all, light. These features were suggestive of abstract shapes and lines and quickly developed for the artist [a reputation] that proved international in its scope and practice.” Today, Dove’s paintings are part of the permanent collections of, among many others, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum

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