Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922)
Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922)

The Clay Cliff, Gay Head, Massachusetts

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922)
Dow, Arthur Wesley
The Clay Cliff, Gay Head, Massachusetts
signed 'Arthur W Dow' (lower left)--signed again, dated '1911' and inscribed with title on the stretcher
oil on canvas
26.1/8 x 36 in. (66.3 x 91.5 cm.)
Sotheby Parke Bernet, Los Angeles, California, October 6, 1981, lot 408.
Acquired by the present owners from the above.

Lot Essay

Arthur Wesley Dow, who championed Japanese aesthetics, was one of the most pioneering American artists and educators of the early twentieth century. In addition to being an influential photographer and printmaker, Dow was a noteworthy painter of American landscapes. The series of works Dow executed while visiting Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard illustrate his inventive oriental style. The Clay Cliff, Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard is an ambitious oil from this series and illustrates Dow's unique painting techniques and artistic theories.

Arthur Dow received his training in Boston and later at the Academie Julian in Paris where he was schooled in the traditional manner of painting prevalent in the late nineteenth century. Disenchanted with academicism and the current mode of painting in Boston, Dow began exploring alternative art forms and cultures. In 1891, Dow discovered oriental art and the particularly formal elements of Japanese painting; influences that would define the theoretical foundation of this art and the style of this painting for the balance of his career.

Dow's enthusiasm and appreciation for the style of Japanese painting was espoused through this teachings. In 1891 the artist organized a series of summer art courses in Boston and Ispwich, Massachusetts. Frederick C. Moffat writes that Dow's student's "were greeted by Dow with the axiom, 'Line, notan and color, this is the trinity of power.' The Japanese brush, held perpendicularly to the paper, was a basic tool for exercises aimed at dividing pictorial space by straight lines of varying width. Line came first then line combinations, but of equal importance was the space to be divided. As he refined the process, the student then proceeded to more complex stages of compositional types: opposition, transition, subordination, repetition, and symmetry. Notan, the principle of harmonious arrangement of darks and lights, came into operation whenever two lines met, or at the moment when line ceased serving as a boundary and became mass. Taken by themselves these lessons would have been entirely sufficient for such innovators as Frank Lloyd Wright and Piet Mondrian. But Dow has no other thought than to apply them to a visual repertoire that had symbolic connotations, specifically the regional subjects of Ipswich and New England." (Arthur Wesley Dow, Washington D.C., 1977, pp. 59-60)

Dow, employing his Japanese influenced painting style, executed very planar works divided by boldly colored areas that were inspired by the landscapes in and around Ipswich. Throughout his career, Dow also traveled to other locales along the Massachusetts coastline including Gay Head located at the tip Martha's Vineyard. Gay Head, an isolated peninsula characterized by rugged terrain, brightly colored cliffs and remarkable rock formations, perfectly suited Dow's unique painting style. The Clay Cliff, Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard, inspired by one of his trips to the area, illustrates Dow's innovative artistic vision.

Dow in a letter to a student in 1893 wrote: "Painting is merely the cutting up of a space by line, then adding color." (Arthur Wesley Dow, p. 59) In the present work, Dow reduces the ocean and towering cliffs to simplified forms composed of turquoise, green and varying hues of pinks and oranges. These forms fluidly interlock creating a sweeping diagonal that dissects the canvas. The beautifully rendered shapes create a unique sense of spatial tension that at once evokes great distance and abrupt foreshortening.

Dow is also known as an educator who influenced an entire generation of American artists. His paintings, however, including The Clay Cliff, Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard, remain as vital links to the evolution of American art in the early twentieth century.

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