Painted in 1940, shortly after John Marin had transitioned from working exclusively in watercolor back into oil, Maine Sea with Island represents the artist at the height of his mature style. An expressive seascape rendered with thick and vigorous brushstrokes in bold colors, the work strikes an exquisite balance among all elements of abstraction and realism which earned Marin distinction as one of the most venerated American artists of the twentieth century.
In 1914, Marin began escaping the bustle of New York City to spend months at a time painting the rocky shoreline of Maine. The rugged promontories and wild, churning sea had a profound impact on his artistic direction. "After Marin discovered Maine and its seascapes in 1914, it became his most compelling subject matter." (S. Hunter, Expression and Meaning: The Marine Paintings of John Marin, exhibition catalogue, West Palm Beach, Florida, 1999, p. 14) Maine represented the ideal retreat from the loud chaos and vigor of New York City and the optimum location for Marin to have direct and unlimited access to nature, which inspired him. This transitional moment was noted by a critic reviewing one of the artist's 1916 exhibitions: "Everything speaks of a liberation of spirit, working in harmony with its surroundings and actively alive." (as quoted in R.E. Fine, John Marin, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1990, p. 168)
Marin's discovery of Maine represents a pivotal moment in his career. Indeed, that year was the artist's most prolific to date and he produced nearly 100 paintings. These early depictions of the natural Maine landscape reflect a remarkable similarity to the New York cityscapes he was producing outside of the summer months. He had a similarly strong emotional response to the craggy landscape as he had experienced in his first observations of New York, and the diverse terms of the northern territory permitted him to break free from geometric forms and introduce more fluidity to his brushwork. Both the city and the coastline inspired him--but ultimately it was from nature where Marin drew his primary motifs. "He was endlessly fascinated by the rugged contours of the Maine landscape and the sea, but he transposed his impressions into abstract pictorial design. By way of explanation he wrote, 'Seems to me that the true artist must perforce go from time to time to the elemental big forms--Sky, Sea, Mountain, Plain--and those things pertaining thereto, to sort of re-true himself up, to recharge the battery. For these big forms have everything. But to express these, you have to love these, to be part of these in sympathy.'" (as quoted in Expression and Meaning: The Marine Paintings of John Marin, p. 14)
From 1914 to 1919, Marin stayed in the Small Point Harbor area, where he had purchased "Marin Island." Despite being virtually uninhabitable due to lack of a fresh water resource, the island served as a retreat for the artist where he could paint and fish in a remote and primitive location. During the 1920s, Marin, his wife Mary and their son, John Curry Marin, Jr., started to venture further north to Stonington, Maine, but it wasn't until 1933, at the suggestion of author and journalist, Herbert J. Seligmann, that he spent his first summer on Cape Split in Addison. Marin was enchanted by the area, as he wrote to his dealer and close friend, Alfred Stieglitz, "those Sun Sets--we make em to order--the kind--No Artist can paint." (as quoted in D.B. Balken, John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury, exhibition catalogue, New Haven, Connecticut, 2011, p. 3). Here he chose to buy the small cottage where he would continue to summer for the remainder of his career and ultimately spent the final days of his life.
It was in Addison where Marin found his mature style. Having worked primarily in oil from 1910 to 1914, Marin had abandoned the medium for the freer watercolor. However, in the 1930s, he began to revisit oil painting. In a letter to Stieglitz the year he purchased the cottage in Addison, he wrote, "I find that I begin to think about [Oil paint] when the Wells begin to get low--which bears out [Charles] Demuth's vision of Marin and his slopping water buckets--which--all means--that I am still puttering around--that I can still see across the road without glasses and that I still have a few teeth that bite." (John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury, p. 4) His rediscovery of the oil medium provided a new means of expression for Marin. "When he used oil pigment, he could also handle it thickly and deliberately, or with an extraordinary swiftness and lightness, reconstituting those summary, spontaneous indications of movement that seemed even more appropriate to his poetic watercolor études of landscape and the sea. Although Marin showed no profound desire to explore abstraction as such or the material possibilities of the weightier medium, he used oil paint with the same originality and flair he brought to the lighter watercolor medium. That was in itself a considerable accomplishment." (Expression and Meaning: The Marine Paintings of John Marin, p. 18)
In Maine Sea with Island Marin places the horizon line high, flattening the natural elements of the seascape against the picture plane. He avoids the complex overlapping of geometric shapes and instead creates a pattern of broadly conceived forms resulting from a strong contrast of color. Here, he exploits the heavy impasto of the oil medium to create a heightened sense of drama reflecting his emotional response to his beloved churning ocean and reverence for the symbiosis of humanity, as evidenced by the sailboat on the horizon, and nature, in the frolicking whales in the central composition. Marin uses assertive strokes of green, blue and white to capture the effect of the roiling sea and juxtaposes them with more carefully applied yet still broad and expressive strokes of grey, brown and black to represent the shoreline.
In 1932, writer Lewis Mumford declared in the New Yorker that Marin was "the most significant and poignant and accomplished landscape painter of his generation in America...He goes his own way and quietly keeps his own gait; no art is freer from echoes and fashions than his, with its curious inner feelings of the movements of buildings and mountains or the heave and push of sailboats, with its daring short-cuts and its emphatic complexities of statement." (John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury, p. 8) Maine Sea with Island demonstrates Marin at the height of his abilities, conveying his unique and highly-personalized sensibility to nature, which set him apart from his contemporaries and garnered him distinction as one of America's leading Modernists.