Arthur Garfield Dove, born in Canandaigua, upstate New York, was named for the Republican presidential and vice presidential candidates in 1880, James Garfield and Chester Arthur. He grew up in Geneva, New York, a prosperous town scenically located at the north end of Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes. William G. Dove, Arthur’s father, had turned his brick layer’s trade to brick manufacturing and then brick contracting. The elder Dove, active in local political affairs, was enterprising in business as well. He acquired nearby farmland and built a commercial structure at the center of town, “the Dove Block,” which still stands at the intersection of Castle and Exchange Streets. By the time Arthur was in high school the family lived in a high Victorian mansion on historic South Main Street. Dove had a happy and unremarkable childhood, punctuated by the birth of a younger brother when he was twelve years old.
Arthur Dove started drawing early and began painting at age nine with the encouragement of a neighbor, Newton Weatherby. Weatherby, a naturalist and truck farmer, was also an amateur painter and musician who introduced the boy to a lifelong love of nature and art. Dove’s independent spirit manifested itself early, when, at the age of twelve, he resigned from the Presbyterian Church over its refusal to allow an atheist, Robert Ingersoll, a right to his opinion. Dove first attended Hobart College, then transferred to Cornell University, in nearby Ithaca. To please his father he pursued a pre-law curriculum. His own interests, however, led him increasingly towards art. He contributed humorous caricatures to the yearbook, The Cornellian, and studied art with Charles Welling Furlong (1874–1967), an explorer and illustrator who headed the Cornell Art Department from 1896 to 1904.
Dove graduated from Cornell in 1903, and moved to New York City where he soon established a successful freelance career as a commercial illustrator, working for a host of well-known magazines and journals. In 1904, he married a hometown sweetheart, Florence Dorsey and the couple lived comfortably in the city. At that time the social worlds of fine artists and illustrators intersected, notably in the circle around Robert Henri. Dove spent time at Mouquin’s, the restaurant on West 23rd Street favored by Henri and his circle of insurgent artists. Dove’s desire to paint increased, and he and Florence sailed for Europe in 1908. In Paris, he met Max Weber (1881–1961) and Alfred Maurer (1868–1932). Maurer, the son of a well-known illustrator, was an American painter who remained Dove’s a close friend for the remainder of Maurer’s life. Guided by Maurer, Dove gained familiarity with the art of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Cézanne. Dove’s own style at that time was impressionist, but he and Maurer worked to reduce impressionism to larger areas of pure color in the manner of Matisse. Dove painted in France and Italy, where he also traveled. His work from these years reflects the influences of French impressionism and fauvism.
When Dove returned to New York, in 1909, he briefly resumed his illustrating career, but clearly intended a more ambitious career as a fine artist. He arranged his first one-man exhibition, a display of the fruits of his trip to Europe, at Hobart College in Geneva. In Manhattan, Dove presented himself to the influential photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), likely through an introduction from Maurer. Stieglitz, evidently favorably impressed, included Dove’s Matisse-inflected still life painting, The Lobster (Morgan, pp. 92–93 no. 08.1 illus., Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas), in his Younger American Painters show of 1910 at his avant-garde Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (popularly called “291,” for its street address on Fifth Avenue). Also in 1910, Dove, Florence and their infant son, moved to a small farm in Westport, Connecticut. At the same time, Dove abandoned the use of recognizable forms in his paintings and produced his first series of abstract works.
The American public’s first exposure to Arthur Dove, abstract painter, was a 1912 exhibit at Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 that consisted of ten abstract pastels. . The exhibition, which traveled from New York to Chicago, was, by Morgan’s account, “the first public display of nonillusionistic art by an American” (p. 18). A year before the famous Armory Show of 1913, Dove’s abstractions generated a great deal of critical notice, ranging from the predictably derisive to respectfully friendly. As subsequent events proved, what the exhibit announced, in terms of Dove as a painter, was not a lifelong adherence to abstraction, but rather a principled independence that left him free to create what he wished, as he wished, with whatever medium he chose to employ.
As modernism made a place for itself in America, Dove enjoyed increasing critical esteem, which did not pay the bills. For the decade after 1910, Dove struggled financially, living the life of a Connecticut farmer, painting whenever time and family obligations allowed. By 1919, his marriage was foundering and, in 1921, he made the break for life on a houseboat with “Reds” Torr. Dove and Florence never divorced. After Florence died unexpectedly in 1929, Dove and Torr had to wait until Torr was divorced before they married in 1932. For years, the couple had been living together frugally on houseboats and as caretakers in private homes.
Al the while, Dove worked without financial support from his family, who never understood his unwavering commitment to a life as an artist. In 1921, William Dove died. When Dove’s mother died in 1933, the Dove brothers inherited the family estate. Land-rich, but in a depressed economy which offered only a minimal market for land, the brothers faced taxes that necessitated that they sell off whatever they could for whatever they could get. Consequently, Dove returned home to Geneva, where again, he found himself a struggling farmer. Partially sustained by a modest annual retainer from the Washington patron, Duncan Phillips, these were lean years for the artist. At one point Dove and Torr, no strangers to unusual living arrangements, lived on the top floor of the Dove Block, a cavernous space with a view of Lake Seneca that had served, in previous incarnations, as a sports arena and a roller skating rink. By 1938, Dove was finally able to return downstate. He and Torr bought a small house, balanced on the edge of a mill pond in Centerport, Long Island, which had once served as the village post office. Unhappily, the return to Long Island coincided with the beginning of a long, slow period of declining health that lead to Dove’s death eight years later. For the remaining years of his life, Dove lived in Centerport as a semi-invalid, continuing to paint with Torr’s aid, until he succumbed to a heart attack in November 1946.
Dove’s relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, the rock upon which his professional career was founded and sustained, held fast until Stieglitz’s death only four months before his own. The relationship is well-documented as the two men, who met infrequently, engaged in regular correspondence that reveals a close and abiding personal and professional friendship. Dove became one of the pillars of Stieglitz’s “Seven American Artists,” a group which included Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe [after 1924, Stieglitz’s wife], Stieglitz himself, Paul Strand, and a rotating artist, often Charles Demuth. From 1929 to 1946, Stieglitz concentrated on three of them: Dove, Marin, and O’Keeffe. As early as 1922, Stieglitz wrote to Dove: “I always think of your work.—And it always gives me pleasure in thinking of it. You know there are but very few artists in this country whose work means anything o me. It is all too stillborn—and ‘ART.’ Yours, & Marin’s, & Georgia’s is never that.” (Lisa Mintz Messinger, ed., Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhib. cat. [New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011], pp. 8, 105.)