Rediscovering John Marin, American Watercolorist

One doesn't get far without Love - John Marin, American Watercolorist

It’s a thrill to learn that prolific American painter John Marin (1870-1953) is being rediscovered, talked about, and featured in important exhibitions again.*

Marin was an influential watercolorist with a bright, abstract flair to his paintings. On a continuum of abstract to realistic, he created work sometimes wildly abstract and sometimes quite realistic. He proceeded the Abstract Expressionists and is thought to be "one of the first Americans to employ techniques of abstraction in his calligraphic depictions of landscapes and city streets."


abstract watercolor painting of mountain. Blue sky, yellow-green foothills in front.
Mt. Chocurua - White Mountains, John Marin, 1926 from the Phillips Collection. Washington, D.C. Rights reserved on this artwork. 


At the fin de siecle (the end of the 19th C) Marin was an energetic artist of 30 years old.

Success in art is often a combination of talent, hard work and being in the right place at the right time. Marin benefitted in this part of his career with rubbing shoulders with the "in crowd." He began a friendship and business relationship with Alfred Stieglitz. 

Stieglitz opened and operated Gallery 291, a photography and fine art gallery in mid-town Manhattan. The name referred to the address at 291 Fifth Avenue (operating from 1906-1917).

One cannot understate the influence this primarily photographic gallery had on the ascension of photography as a fine art form. Additionally with the powerful influence of Stieglitz 291 became the launching point for several careers, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Steichen, and John Marin. 

The photo below, seems like a lovely outing. John Marin is in the lower right hand corner. 

 Left to right: Paul HavilandAbraham WalkowitzKatharine Rhoades, Emily Stieglitz,
Agnes Meyer, Alfred Stieglitz, J. B. Kerfoot, John Marin.
Agnes Meyer's family contributed some of the watercolors of John Marin
to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Interestingly, Agnes Meyer is the mother of Katherine Graham,
the former publisher of the Washington Post. 

Marin drew his inspiration primarily from nature–seascapes, landscapes, and mountain scenes. Yet, trained as an architect, he presented urban settings, too. He abstracted his subjects with bright colors and simple energetic brushstrokes. He didn’t fuss with his paintings or employ sophisticated techniques. His strategy must have been: See it. Interpret it. Paint it. Done.

Often, he created his composition with a point of view above a typical eye level. Point of view is often not called out by the viewer. Yet, it presents a novel way of observing a scene.

His paintings have an immediacy and a friendly intimacy. This is in opposition to, for example, Edward Hopper, (1882-1967) whose paintings had a more standard eye-level point of view, but conveyed a sense of remote isolation. His paintings reeked “loner” and a loss of intimacy.

And, no one would use an adjective such as “friendly” to describe his work. Possibly Hopper’s most famous painting is “Nighthawks” shown here which is on permanent exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Painting of people sitting at a counter in an urban diner.
Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper.

Read more about American Watercolorists on my post, 19 Important American Watercolorists of the Gilded Age. 

John Marin at the Museum of Modern Art

A charming depiction of John Marin, written contemporaneously, is included in a 1936 press release announcing the opening of the Marin exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

The link to the entire document is included following this quote from the release:

“Loren Mozley, a young artist friend of Marin, presents a vivid picture of the ‘Yankee Artist’. Mozley says in part: ‘John Marin is an American original, a curious little man, wiry and frail, his face is incredibly wrinkled and puckers into all sorts of criss-cross lines. His candid eyes peer out brightly and mischievously under an outlandish curling bang, His hair is scarcely streaked with gray. When he comes to town he dresses old-fashioned with a quaint/elegance. A dark green tie knotted in a remembered way. A pearl. And a tense grace born of habitual alertness.

Press Release: John Marin Exhibit 1936 MOMA

Here is a screen shot of a snippet of the press release from the Museum of Modern Art, New York. I presume there are some among us who have never seen a sample of what a sheet of text created by an actual typewriter looks like -- not just "typewriter font." LOL. 

Marin’s Techniques

The first time I saw one of Marin’s watercolors, I was instantly almost dizzy with an incomprehension as to how an American watercolorist, about a generation after John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Winslow Homer (1836-1910), could be so far away from traditional composition and how childlike, yet how complicated, his watercolors appeared.

At the time I was not as familiar as I am now with some of the more abstract work of Sargent and Homer, so the divide isn’t as great as I once thought. It reminds me of one of Marin’s comments in a letter to Stieglitz expressing his impatience with “the platitudes of those who write upon things about which they sense mighty little.”

The freshness of his work is saved by his restraint. His work is not laborious or overworked. Details are implied. Apparently, he was ambidextrous and worked with brushes in either hand. The image that brings to mind is of the artist painting away, double-fisted. It adds to the energetic quality of his paintings.

Hues are interpreted, and they appear not necessarily as seen in nature. The repetition of color, pattern, and visual energy conveys the depth of observation and love of nature that underpins his work.

“The true artist must go to the elemental big forms. Sky, Sea, Mountain, Plain and those things pertaining thereto, to sort of re-true himself up, to recharge the battery. For these big forms have everything. But to express these, you have to love these, to be a part of these in sympathy. One doesn’t get very far without this love.”

His gift of freeing himself from the styles of other artist, was built on this love and on his path as a watercolorist: "In the Watercolors I had been making, even before Stieglitz saw my work, I had already begun to let go in complete freedom.”


Successful watercolor painting requires mastery of the sequence of stokes, patience, managing the ratio of water to paint, and learning when to stop. These skills are paramount. Perhaps they are more than creativity or artistic gifts. Marin’s paintings look effortless because he was focused and, it’s obvious to me, that he loved working in watercolor.

It is estimated that he painted over 2,500 watercolors. Really no surprise there. His ease with the medium is evident. It's demonstrated through his quick, confident strokes, sparse washes of color, frequently narrow value range which give the paintings an almost pastel-color quality.

Off Cape Split, Maine
Kufstein, Austrian Tyrol, watercolor by John Marin, American, Rutherford, New Jersey 1870–1953 Cape Split, Maine. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Isermann, 2002. Accession: 2002.241 © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

His Story Telling

He wrote many letters to Stieglitz over the decades, typically from his studio in Maine. He humorously described his location is Maine as: 

" fierce, relentless, cruel, beautiful, fascinating, hellish, and all the other ish-es, place. ... To go anywhere, I have to row, row, row. Pretty soon I expect the well will give out and I'll them be even obliged to row for water and I have to make watercolors. To hell with water for cooking, washing and drinking." 

To anyone who enjoys fishing, this is also a tongue in cheek, very funny line: 
"One cannot even  fish quietly here for you are always getting bites or pulling in fish." 

When I was a neophyte to American Modernists, and developing my own style as a watercolorist, I found his style and “voice” completely intoxicating. It was riveting to stand in front of his work which exuded speedy wild abandon yet conviction and expertise.

j marin- MET w credit
Off Cape Split, Maine, watercolor and crayon on paper, by John Marin, (American, Rutherford, New Jersey, 1870-1953 Cape Split Maine.) Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949. Accession: 49.70.156. © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In a Wall Street Journal article he was described as:

“A bold colorist who viewed the American landscape through the kaleidoscopic prism of cubism, Mr. Marin conveyed with identical precision and sympathy the nervous angularity of lower Manhattan (“City Movement,” 1940) and the ceaseless turmoil of the waves that break on the coast of Maine (“Outer Sand Island, Maine,” 1936).”

His work can present multiple points of view or points in time simultaneously– as in cubism. Or, like a cartoon panel that tells a story across multiple frames his work is not always representative of a moment in time. For example, he is diametrically opposed to Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), who coined the phrase, “the decisive moment.” Cartier-Bresson sought to capture that exquisite moment in time where the future hangs and waits. It’s a pinpoint; Marin’s work is more of a narrative expression over a period of time.

A bicyclist is riding along a street at the bottom of a windy staircase.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Photos, as used in a “Christian Science Monitor” article, May 7, 2010, Cartier-Bresson: A Master’s Black-and-White World.

Today Marin is Again Included on Lists of “Best Known” Watercolorists, or Most Influential American Artists of the 20th C

John Marin, 291, No_4,1915. Public domain.
A cover for the publication "291" representing the gallery Stieglitz founded.

Marin has enthusiast admirers, such as myself, and was once in the same stratosphere as Jackson Pollack, (1912-1956), as well as other Abstract Expressionists, or the Modern School, and even artists of other genres. In 1949, he was regarded as “America’s Artist No. 1” by Look Magazine.

Yet, after his death in 1953, Marin fell out of some of the discussions. 

The same Wall Street Journal article, (August 5, 2011) presents opinions as to why Marin fell off the radar of the influential art critics, curators, and patrons of the first half of the twentieth Century. The article conjectured that perhaps it was because he was American.

In my opinion, it was partly because he was working in watercolor.

Most of the giants of the Abstract Expressionism movement and other modern styles were working in oil, (Mark Rothko, Paul Klee, or Wassily Kandinsky), or collage (like Pollack), or other media in which they could create bold big dramatic work. Additionally, often the mood conveyed in the artwork created during and immediately following the World Wars was brooding, dark, or stark.

John Marin’s paintings were often comparatively small works in a transparent watercolor medium. These are not attributes typically associated with the most well known Modernists or Abstract Expressionists.

As mentioned, Marin started using oils later in his career, which he often handled in a watercolor-like way. Historically, watercolor was rarely seen as a serious, professional art form for artists in the fine art field. 

Watercolor lends itself to portability and a fluid, spontaneous technique. I find his watercolor paintings fresh and brilliant.

What a treat to have a renaissance of John Marin’s work in more recent exhibits.  . Plus additional scholarship is being generated about his work. All to benefit his legacy, and for art lovers to see an alternative jubilant, bright, abstract interpretation of the world through watercolor. 

What an intriguing afternoon it would be with these fellows in 1911.

Unknown photographer: A Group of Young American Artists of the Modern School (from left to right: Jo Davidson, Edward Steichen, Arthur B. Carles, John Marin; back: Marsden Hartley, Laurence Fellows), c. 1911, Bates College Museum of Art. Sarah Greenough et al: Modern art and America – Alfred Stieglitz and his New York galleries. National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C. 2001, ISBN 0-8212-2728-9, p. 63. 


* A couple of these exhibits are, “Drip, Splatter, Wash: American Watercolor, 1860-1960” in 2016 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, and “American Watercolors in the Age of Homer and Sargent” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (The Philadelphia exhibit closed in May 2017).

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    • Ed Natan

      Jane, I’m a life-long watercolorist and admirer of John Marin, and was wondering if you may know of any art exhibits of current like-minded artists at museums or galleries? Thanks, Ed Natan

    • Clyde Iverson

      I have painting sighed Marin 32

    • Donna C.

      A Maine painter passionate and ever inspired by Marin – eager to see a greater recognition of his watercolors and brushstrokes.

    • Jane J.

      I love the work of John Marin. What a treat to read this post! Looking forward to discovering the rest of this blog.

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