In 1927, Alfred Stieglitz exhibited Running River at the Intimate Gallery in New York. In the brochure that accompanied the exhibit, Arthur Dove wrote a paragraph on the imagery and inspiration of this painting in nature: "The colors in the painting 'Running River' were chosen looking down into a stream. The red and yellow from the wet stones and the green from moss with black and white. The line was a moving point reducing the moving volume to one dimension. From then on it is expressed in terms of color as music is in terms of sound." (Ann Lee Morgan, Arthur Dove, Life and Work with a Catalogue Raisonn, Newark, Delaware, 1984, p. 160).
Dove created his first abstract image of a stream in 1919 with his charcoal drawing #4 Creek (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), which shares much in common with the composition of Running River, particularly the suggestion of surging, riffled water in the lower half of the composition. He revisited the concept again in 1920 with his fully-realized oil, River Bottom, Silver, Ochre, Carmine, Green (Private collection). Other related works include Waterfall (The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC), painted in 1925, and Water Swirl, Canandaigua Outlet (Private collection) of 1937.
Throughout his career, Arthur Dove's chief inspiration was nature, not only in its outward forms, but also in its more elusive aspects, particularly sound, as suggested here with Dove's explicit metaphor comparing color to musical notes, and implied in the natural 'music' of the river itself. Quite a few of Dove's early works develop the theme of music, suggesting a thematic connection between music and abstract art, which was actively championed by Wassily Kandinsky, the European abstract painter. According to Ann Lee Morgan, Dove's most completely abstract early oils, such as Music and Sentimental Music "demonstrate that he, like Kandinsky, was aware of the philosophical and aesthetic linkage between music and the formal components of visual art. This connection made possible the justification for abstract painting on the grounds that it followed the precedent of music, which relies entirely on abstract means but nevertheless touches the soul." (Arthur Dove, p. 47).
Dove also chose to paint many compositions with non-musical sounds as his primary subject. Such sounds are perhaps most famously represented in his Fog Horns (Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado) of 1929, depicting three rose-hued, hazy discs in an expanse of gray, and "illustrating as it does the deep-throated blasts of a foghorn successively approaching through a heavy atmosphere over the water." (Arthur Dove, p.70). Much of Dove's art is devoted to the theme of developing, in pictorial terms, the visual and the aural in nature.
In the 1920s, Dove also developed an interest in line as a major element in his art. Often sinuous and rhythmic, as it is in Running River, in other works it is freer, with the result that "sometimes dizzying lines predominate." (Arthur Dove, p. 52). The importance of this renewed expressiveness in line is underscored by his comment in the Intimate Gallery brochure, in which he emphasizes the role of line in enhancing the abstraction of Running River. Nonetheless, in contrast to these formal elements of design, as early as 1916 Dove sought to underscore the primary role of the sensory in his art. "Theories have been outgrown," he wrote, "the means is disappearing, the reality of the sensation alone remains. It is that in its essence which I wish to set down. It should be a delightful adventure not to revolutionize nor to reform, but to enjoy life out loud." (Debra Bricker Balken, et al, Arthur Dove: A Retrospective, Andover, Massachusetts, 1998, p. 24).