HELEN TORR (1886-1967)
HELEN TORR (1886-1967)
HELEN TORR (1886-1967)
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Property from an Important New York Collection
HELEN TORR (1886-1967)


HELEN TORR (1886-1967)
bears artist estate stamp (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
26 1⁄4 x 20 1⁄4 in. (66.7 x 51.4 cm.)
Painted in 1931.
The artist.
Estate of the above.
Graham Gallery, New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1988.
D.L. Shirey, "Art: Helen Torr Stands on Her Own," The New York Times, July 15, 1972, p. 21.
The Magazine Antiques, vol. 126, 1984, p. 493.
A.C. DePietro, et al., Out of the Shadows: Helen Torr, A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Huntington, New York, 2003, pp. 26, 29.
New York, An American Place, Arthur Dove and Helen Torr, March 20-April 15, 1933.
Huntington, New York, Heckscher Museum; New York, Graham Gallery, Helen Torr, 1886-1967, June 3-August 18, 1972, p. 6, no. 16.
New York, Graham Gallery, Helen Torr: In Private Life, Mrs. Arthur Dove, March 25–May 17, 1980, no. 18.
New York, Graham Gallery, Modernism, April 29-June 12, 1987, no. 31.

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Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

Though more often remembered as the wife of the prominent Stieglitz circle American modernist Arthur Dove, Helen Torr–nicknamed ‘Reds’ for her auburn hair—painted alongside her husband in a distinct and original Modernist idiom. A long overlooked female artist now finally garnering the recognition she deserves, Torr only exhibited her work twice during her lifetime: at the Opportunity Gallery in 1927, in a show organized by Georgia O’Keeffe, and then in 1933 at Alfred Stieglitz’s An American Place. Painted in 1931 during one of the artist’s most productive periods, Imagined is among the most accomplished of Torr’s favored still life and floral imagery.

Born in the Philadelphia suburbs in 1886, Torr studied at the Drexel Institute from 1902-05 alongside notable modernist artists, including Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. She began living with Dove in 1921, when they both left their respective spouses for a union which was not only romantic but filled with mutual creative respect. In 1922, the couple moved aboard a 42-foot sailboat named Mona, on which they painted and sailed, spending winters at the Ketewomoke Yacht Club in Halesite on Long Island, New York. While painting aboard Mona, Torr primarily created works small in scale, placing Imagined among the larger works in her oeuvre.

Dove consistently wrote to Stieglitz praising Torr’s work, for example writing in 1929: “Reds has done some fine things—really beautiful. I may be a bit prejudiced but I think I can see straight enough to know that.” (as quoted in A.C. DePietro, Out of the Shadows: Helen Torr, A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Huntington, New York, 2003, p. 21) In 1933, Stieglitz finally held a joint exhibit of Torr and Dove’s work at his An American Place gallery—the only time he would exhibit her work. Imagined is one of the twenty-one paintings chosen for this important show, along with a diverse range of works from other floral still lifes to abstract seascapes such as Oyster Stakes (1930, Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, New York).

Despite consistent support from Dove and the couple’s one shared exhibition, Torr never enjoyed the same success or support from Stieglitz and the art community that revolved around him—a decision of which others took notice. Indeed, in 1972 Georgia O’Keeffe reflected, “When [Torr’s] work was given to Stieglitz and he wouldn’t show it, I felt it was a mistake. The things were small and colorful in a very reserved fashion, but I thought that they were very good. I think she is a person who would have flowered considerably if she had been given the attention. It seems a pity when you look at what she did anyway.” (as quoted in Out of the Shadows, p. 12)

Ann Cohen DePietro writes regarding Imagined and its related drawing in The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.: “Drawing for Imagined (Flowers in a Vase) is a detailed drawing filled with swirling, circular forms that animate the surface of this charming piece. Proscenium-like draperies frame the last marigolds of autumn, and their rounded contours are echoed in the fabric pattern and in curvilinear forms in the background. Torr recorded her work on the picture, initially identified as Flowers and Curtains, for several days in November. It is the last painting she completed in 1931, a particularly productive year.” (Out of the Shadows, p. 26). Torr’s dynamic use of pattern, color and form make Imagined one of Torr’s most complex still-life compositions. Notably her use of curtains, which delicately frame the flowers at center, recalls not only the work of Marsden Hartley but also Rebecca Salsbury James. The first wife of photographer Paul Strand and an accomplished artist, James was equally overshadowed by her more famous husband and struggled for recognition from Stieglitz.

Filled with self-doubt, upon her death in 1967 Torr instructed her sister, Mary Torr Rehm, to destroy all of her remaining artistic output. Defying her sister’s wishes, Rehm instead showed the work to Eva Gatling, then-director of the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, New York. Recognizing their importance, Gatling saved the paintings bound for the Salvation Army, including Imagined, and eventually mounted a show at the Heckscher and then Graham Galleries in 1972—in which the present work was also included. A New York Times review for the exhibition at Graham observed, “there are very strong canvases- such as ‘Oyster Stakes,’ ‘Imagined’, and ‘Melodrama’- that stand out for their inventive composition and imaginative chromatic schemes.” (D.L. Shirey, "Art: Helen Torr Stands on Her Own," The New York Times, July 15, 1972, p. 21.)

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