Asleep (Vernal Moon), a powerful composition of bold washes, belongs to the important Sun and Moon series of eighteen watercolors which Oscar Bluemner completed between February and April 1927. 1927 was one of Bluemner's most productive years during his richest period of creativity, and Jeffrey Hayes asserts that “in his late painting, Bluemner’s mind and eye combine to form his most powerful testimony as an artist.” (Oscar Bluemner: Life, Art and Theory, vol. II, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, 1982, p. 320)
For his Sun and Moon series of watercolors, all measuring 9 ½ x 12 ¾ in., “…[Bluemner] sought a medium as rich and permanent as oil or tempera, but more suited to the expressive tenor of modern life. The traditional gum arabic solutions fulfilled the latter requirement, but lacked the stability and color resonance which Bluemner demanded. By fortifying his medium with a casein binder and waterproofing each layer of color with formaldehyde, Bluemner gave his new board-mounted watercolors an unusual durability and tonal amplitude. Comparing his own methods to those of his friend John Marin, he wrote: 'I do not paint ‘watercolors’ in the present tense….[he] floats them on with buckets of water [and] is master in dry brushlike scraped out white light effects. I hammer the colors forcefully together.'" (Oscar Bluemner: Life, Art and Theory, vol. II, p. 326)
Bluemner kept a diary with meticulous notations on his paintings. His notes about Asleep (Vernal Moon) describe the work as a “green moonrise (seen in Charlestown)” painted on “Feb 14-27.” (The Artist's diary, 1926-29, p. 47, no. 64) In 1926, after the traumatic death of his wife Lina, Bluemner moved to South Braintree, Massachusetts, not far from Charlestown. He often painted in the late afternoon and evening, when colors were most vivid, and he specifically notes in his diary entry for the present work that it was “finally finished at lamp light” and that the “…moon is very simple, big + powerful!” Bluemner commented on his new fascination with moons in a letter to Alfred Stieglitz, "If [only] I had a vision 40 years ago that I should sit in this very corner of the world, more alone with myself...than the man in the moon! Hence I am painting moons; lunatica." (as quoted in Oscar Bluemner, p. 129) The vernal moon or equinox is the moment when the sun crosses directly over the Earth’s equator marking the beginning of spring. Since Bluemner completed the present work in February, he is clearly instituting artistic license with the title.
Bluemner exhibited the works in this series at Stieglitz’s Intimate Gallery in February-March 1928, in a show titled A Series of Watercolors (Synthetic Medium) and 6 Oils of Suns and Moons, Etc.--Facts and Fancy--Strains or Moods. Fellow Stieglitz Circle artist and master of watercolors himself, Charles Demuth, exclaimed of the exhibition in an Art News review that “he couldn’t have bettered [one of the watercolors] himself.” (as quoted in Oscar Bluemner: Life, Art and Theory, vol. II, p. 331)
With his works from the Sun and Moon series, Bluemner closely parallels themes explored by other fellow Stieglitz Circle modernists Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe. For example, the radiating green and red orb of the moon in Asleep (Vernal Moon) echoes the setting sun seen in O’Keeffe’s Red Hills, Lake George, also from 1927 (The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.). Dove too was fascinated by the sun and the moon as in Moon (1928, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas). Yet, while O’Keeffe’s and Dove’s works concentrate solely on nature, Bluemner incorporates man into Asleep (Vernal Moon). Perhaps a vestige of his architectural training, or due to an urge to include straight lines, Bluemner almost always includes buildings or parts of buildings in his works. Still, though line is an important part of the composition in Asleep (Vernal Moon), color dominates and creates the dramatic mood of the painting. The classic Bluemner-red gable of the house falls into the shadow of the glorious green moon with its radiating bands of orange-red. For Bluemner, colors took on psychological properties. He associated red with power, vitality, passion and life, blue with serenity and green with repose. (B. Haskell, Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color, New York, 2005, p. 98) Therefore, using Bluemner’s color theory to read Asleep (Vernal Moon), the work is a perfectly balanced arrangement of vitality (red house), serenity (blue sky) and repose (green moon and foliage).