Heralded as the very first truly abstract American artist, Arthur Dove's entire career can be defined by his innovative and ever-evolving approach to both subject matter and media. From his earliest pastels, to the assemblages, to seminal masterworks such as Boat Going Through Inlet executed on tin, Dove's manipulation of his material is as integral to his work as his varied choice of subject matter. It is this spirit of experimentation that makes him one of the most compelling artists of the 20th century.
In 1922, after living for several years in his hometown of Geneva, New York with his first wife, Dove moved aboard a 42 foot sailboat named Mona with his new companion, fellow artist Helen 'Reds' Torr. They toured the Mona in and around the harbors of Long Island Sound before ultimately docking, in 1929, at the Ketewomoke Yacht Club in Halesite, where they took a simple room overlooking the harbor in exchange for maintenance of the club. Throughout his career, Dove drew visual inspiration from his immediate natural environment, so it no surprise that water would play an important role in his art. He employed water's fluid effects in a variety of media and it became a central motif in his paintings. Dove created his first abstract image of a stream in 1919 with his charcoal drawing #4 Creek (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); as in Boat Going Through Inlet, this earlier work suggests surging, riffled water in the lower half of the composition. He revisited the concept again in 1920 with his fully-realized oil, River Bottom, Silver, Ochre, Carmine, Green (Private collection). Other related works include Waterfall (1925, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), Water Swirl, Canandaigua Outlet (1937, Private collection) and the magnificent Clouds and Water (1930, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) from Alfred Stieglitz's personal collection.
In addition to its immediacy in his everyday life, water likely also appealed as a subject to Dove because its movement possesses an inherent musicality. Dove's interest in nature extended beyond its outward forms to its more elusive aspects, particularly sound, as suggested with his frequent explicit metaphors comparing color to musical notes, and implied in the natural 'music' of the water itself. Quite a few of Dove's early works envelop the motif of music, suggesting a thematic connection between music and abstract art, which was actively championed by the European abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky. According to Ann Lee Morgan, Dove's most dramatically abstract early oils, such as Sentimental Music (circa 1913, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), "demonstrate that he, like Kandinsky, was aware of the philosophical and aesthetic linkage between music and the formal components of visual art. This connection made possible the justification for abstract painting on the grounds that it followed the precedent of music, which relies entirely on abstract means but nevertheless touches the soul." (Arthur Dove: Life and Work, With a Catalogue Raisonné, Newark, New Jersey, 1984, p. 47).
Much of Dove's art is devoted to the theme of developing, in pictorial terms, the visual and the aural in nature. Even once Dove moved beyond his abstractions from the 1910s and 20s and returned to representation, a sense of rhythm and movement pervades and enlivens his compositions. Boat Going Through Inlet was painted at a turning point in Dove's career circa 1930 when the abstracted forms he developed during the previous decade reached full maturity, and the work embodies this sense of musicality so carefully articulated in his earlier abstractions. Boat Going Through Inlet is a powerful symphony of modulated colors and expressive forms. Painted primarily in a palette of blue and gray gradations, with touches of warmer browns, ochres and white, Boat Going Through Inlet depicts a vista of the Long Island Sound, where Dove lived. A sailboat with two masts bobs in the waves, its brown hull seemingly as fluid as the water below. The contrast created by the horizontal, sinuous lines of the water and clouds above are bisected by the bold diagonals of the ships masts creating an image of the 'masculine vitality' for which Dove was renowned. These forceful lines of the composition are masterfully counterbalanced by the soothing rhythm and soft colors of the water. The motion of the water is suggested by undulating waves, painted with pulsating brushwork, but the impact is amplified by Dove's choice of medium. By deliberately leaving areas of the tin support exposed, the surface adopts a shimmering quality and appears to almost dance before the eye as if instructed to do so by some greater orchestral force.
The white orb, hovering just above the horizon line of the composition, can be interpreted as the moon and suggests that the shimmering at the peaks in the surface emulates the effect of the moonlight on the water. The sun and moon motif is prominent in the work of so many of the Stieglitz-circle artists, most notably Georgia O'Keeffe. O'Keeffe shared a profound connection to nature with Arthur Dove, whose work she admired since she first saw Based on Leaf Forms and Spaces (1911-12, location unknown) illustrated in Arthur Jerome Eddy's seminal 1914 book, Cubists and Post-Impressionism. For her, the work "stood out for its abstract organic shapes that coalesced into a seductive, undulating, rhythmic pattern." (as quoted in D.B. Balken, Dove/O'Keeffe: Circles of Influence, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 2009, p. 21) The two artists were introduced by Stieglitz, who represented both at his gallery “291.” Their shared commitment and spiritual connection to the natural world led to a mutual admiration for one another's work and a lifelong artistic dialogue. O'Keeffe often commented on Dove's paintings and hung them in her home, while Dove said of O’Keeffe, "This girl is doing naturally what many of us fellows are trying to do, and failing." (as quoted in C. Eldredge, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1991, p. 13) Indeed, Dove and O'Keeffe incorporated this circular iconography of suns and moons time and again throughout their careers, influencing Modernists such as Oscar Bluemner and John Marin to include similar renderings in their work.
By 1930, Dove had found a champion in Alfred Stieglitz and was holding annual exhibitions at his gallery (first at the Intimate Gallery and later at An American Place). As Deborah Balken writes, "Stieglitz became particularly eager to solidify his position as a proponent of American cultural expression. Dove's work, more than ever, was integral to his ongoing crusade to underscore the singularity of vanguard painting. " (Arthur Dove: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Andover, Massachusetts, p. 34) 1930, the year of the present work’s first exhibition at An American Place, also marked the introduction of a new patron, Duncan Phillips, whose interest in the artist shaped the rest of his career. Phillips provided Dove a monthly stipend in exchange for right of first refusal from each annual exhibition. The result is one of the most impressive collections of the artist's work. Duncan Phillips was Arthur Dove's great patron, recognizing the artist's talent and importance from the moment he first saw his work and collecting him throughout his life. In 1958, on the occasion of a retrospective exhibition of Dove's work, Phillips recalled his first encounter with Dove's work, "Fascinated from the first glimpse by Dove's unique vision, I found that I was being drawn to an artist because his appeal was exclusively visual, because his whimsically imaginative images were inseparable from his resourceful craftsmanship. He was so unstandardized that in his own period and country he embarrassed the literary critics, and even the painters and teachers of painting who deal win theories and group movements." (as quoted in F.S. Wright, Arthur G. Dove, Berkeley, California, 1958, p. 14)
Phillips wrote of Dove's career and his unique artistic vision, "Arthur G. Dove deserves to be ranked with the dissimilar Kandinsky among the earliest abstract expressionists. Certainly in the realm of uncompromising and impetuous exploration Dove was the boldest American pioneer. He was and is unique. The significant fact in his uneventful and important life is that after his twenty-seventh year he renounced a career as a successful illustrator to paint in ways unprecedented among his fellow countrymen and different from anything that had been done or was later to be done in Europe. Profound was his conversion in his years of decision to the concept of the intimately symbolical image, to be abstracted from nature and from the most familiar objects, as a new language for painting." (as quoted in Arthur G. Dove, p. 13) Boat Going Through Inlet reflects Dove's unwavering fascination with the natural world coupled with his passionate investigation into abstraction, quintessential elements that earned him renown as one of the most important American Modernist painters.