More consistently than any other American artist of the early twentieth century, John Marin captured the energy and dynamism of New York City. "Marin saw movement in his paintings not only as a sign of modernity, a means of capturing the quickening pace of life in the twentieth century. It was also for him a manifestation of the pulse and rhythm of life itself." (M.E. Ward, Richard York Gallery, Movement: Marin, New York, 2001, p. 7) The tempo of the city and its role as a center for Modernist thinking were keys to Marin's...artistic immersion in its atmosphere. As evident in the present painting, Sailboat, Brooklyn Bridge, New York Skyline, Marin was a close observer of the shapes, spaces and rhythms present in a modern metropolis.
Manhattan never lost its fascination for the artist, and throughout his life Marin revisited its panoramic stretch and diverse rhythms. He saw it as "a kind of bustling paradise and as one of the formative influences in his life. First in his watercolors and later in his oils, he observed it from many points of view and created vivid pictorial equivalents for the complex interrelation of its harsh angles, the impact of light on surfaces of glass and stone, the spatial tensions and the myriad contrasts of movement." (C.E. Buckley, John Marin in Retrospect: An Exhibition of his Oils and Watercolors, Washington, D.C., p. 10)
In Sailboat, Brooklyn Bridge, New York Skyline, the artist paints bold, geometric shapes outlined in black and arranges them on top of each other causing tension in the composition. Within these blocks, Marin contains various architectural references -- most prominently, the Brooklyn Bridge and a sailboat on the East River. Without any overt human presence, these man-made forms interlock into a densely packed mass portraying the dominating presence of structures in the City.
Although known as a watercolorist, Marin produced a number of masterworks in oil. For example, in 1930 Paul Rosenfeld "commented quite aptly on the richness of [Marin's] technique: '[his] painting is full of daring transitions. The gamuts frequently progress in wild, quick leaps; color jumping boldly to its subtle complement. It passes with delightful precipitousness from one texture to another. It passes from shaggy surfaces spattered on the paper to satiny rivulets and streams; from sensations of roundness to sensations of flatness; from streaks ridged like minute relatively large areas of white paper left unmarked add to the instantaneousness and heterogeneity of the color relations. Marin actually scrubs on his paint in scudding rivulets, airy cascades and dithering flashes of running color, plotting the curve of quickest motion'." (as quoted in R.E. Fine, John Marin, Washington, D.C., p. 197)
Marin's use of oil allowed the artist to use dramatically differing texture as part of his works. In Sailboat, Brooklyn Bridge, New York Skyline, Marin varies his strokes from very thin layers, revealing the weave of the canvas to render the exterior of buildings to thickly applied broad strokes to convey the movement and density of the city. The East River is painted with short, choppy brushstrokes and thick impasto drawn to points to give the river dynamic, almost violent movement, mirroring the activity of the city behind it. Marin's use of color is as effective as his brushwork in his oils. He uses bright colors, often blending and layering the pigments not only to emphasize the stacked and isolated shapes, but to add to the bustle of activity and constant stirring of the city he found so fascinating.
Marin wrote: "Shall we consider the life of a great city as confined simply to the people and animals on its streets and in its buildings? Are the buildings themselves dead? We have been told somewhere that a work of art is a thing alive. You cannot create a work of art unless the things you behold respond to something within you. Therefore if these buildings move me they too must have life. Thus the whole city is alive; buildings, people, all are alive; and the more they move me, the more I feel them to be alive...I see great forces at work; great movements; the large buildings and the small buildings; the warring of the great and the small; influences of one mass on another greater or smaller mass...While these powers are at work pushing, pulling, sideways, downwards, upwards, I can hear the strife and there is great music being played.
And so I try to express graphically what a great city is doing. Within the frames there must be a balance, a controlling of the warring, pushing, pulling forces. This is what I am trying to realize. But we are all human." (as quoted in John Marin, p. 126)
As one of Marin's most expressive and spectacular works of his oeuvre, Ruth Fine discusses Sailboat, Brooklyn Bridge, New York Skyline, "Marin compressed all of his favored motifs into individual enclosures, painted with splashy delight, and then surrounded them with one of his hand-painted frames." (John Marin, p. 157) With the combination of the subject, medium, palette and painted frame, Sailboat, Brooklyn Bridge, New York Skyline is one of Marin rarest and most important works of his oeuvre.