Spates Reflects on Artist Arthur Dove - Hobart and William Smith Colleges
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Jim Spates

Spates Reflects on Artist Arthur Dove

In a recent Finger Lakes Times column, Professor Emeritus of Sociology James Spates P’00, P’09 examines the legacy of Arthur Dove, a member of the Hobart Class of 1903 for two years before receiving his undergraduate degree from Cornell University, and “one of the most important painters of the American 20th century.” A new exhibit in the Geneva native’s honor is on display through Sept. 22 at the Geneva Historical Society, 543 S. Main St.

The local retrospective “Dove’s Geneva” is an opportunity for visitors to see how “Dove was affected by his life in this area — an insight which, by the way, many fine art enthusiasts of today have yet to have,” Spates writes.

Remnants of Dove’s life in the Finger Lakes are apparent throughout more than 100 works that have been displayed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago. The artist, often hailed as North America’s first artist to use abstraction as his principal way of painting, also impacted the City of Geneva, which includes historical buildings constructed by the Dove family.

Among others, Spates is participating in efforts to preserve Geneva’s historical Dove Block, where Arthur Dove created some of his most famous paintings.

Dove’s HWS Life of Consequence profile

‘Dove’s Geneva’: A review

Jim Spates, Aug. 19

Over the course of Geneva’s long history, Arthur Dove was and arguably remains its most famous citizen. Yet few of us know much about him. His father, William, owner of a local brickmaking factory, moved his family to North Main Street when he was 2. He spent the first two years of his college career at Hobart College before receiving his bachelor’s degree at Cornell. He moved to New York City where he became an ever-increasingly-in-demand illustrator for newspapers and magazines, such as the Saturday Review. In 1908, he and his wife, the former Florence Dorsey of Geneva, moved to France so he could study the new paintings being created by young artists with names like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Back in New York City, he became the first American to work in the modernist tradition (illustrating became a sideline). Over the next two decades, his reputation as a major voice in American art grew. In the early 1930s he moved back to Geneva with his new wife, Helen Torr (the marriage to Florence ended in divorce) so that, working with his brother, Paul, he might help settle the family estate. Here he lived for the next half decade, during which he created at least a hundred of his most acclaimed works, most based on subjects he saw in Geneva or the surrounding area — Oaks Corners, Phelps, Seneca Lake, the Canandaigua Outlet, others.

For nearly two years of that half decade, he and Helen lived on the third floor of the Dove Block on the corner of Castle and Exchanges streets, the city’s main intersection. He would rise early in the morning and walk about the city and lake shore, looking carefully, absorbing new ideas for paintings. In 1938, he and Helen returned downstate to live on Long Island. There he kept painting until his death in 1946.

Since his passing, his reputation as one of the most important painters of the American 20th century has only grown. His works are among the prized possessions of almost every major museum in this country, including The Metropolitan and Whitney Museums in New York, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Art Institute of Chicago, and The Smithsonian Museum, The Phillips Collection, and The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. His dear friend, Georgia O’Keeffe, reflecting on her own storied career, said that it was Arthur Dove who had given her her start, who had showed her how modern art “worked.” And yet, despite all this celebrity, we Genevans know little of him.

Happily, to help in rectifying the gap, the Geneva Historical Society has opened a new exhibit, “Dove’s Geneva.” It is a fine retrospective put together by GHS Curator, John Marks. As a result of Paul Dove’s generosity, the historical society has its own collection of original Arthur Dove works, including some of his best illustrations. Many are on display at the exhibit, along with informative display boards telling the story of the Geneva Arthur Dove grew up in and returned to.

As we make our way around the room, we learn of the profound effect which Newton Weatherly, a Geneva neighbor, had on the growing boy’s love of nature and the city, see displayed a number of Dove’s lovely illustrations, and one of his famed abstract paintings.

Marks has created two special books to enhance the viewer’s experience — a collection of articles about Dove from major magazines and newspapers commenting on the importance of his work as long ago as the 1930s and 1940s; included as well are some recollections by brother Paul informing us about the Dove family brickmaking business and the significance of Arthur’s paintings.

The second collection includes reproductions of many of the watercolors Dove made of Geneva and the local region during the 1930s when he lived here. Viewing these, the visitor learns how deeply Dove was affected by his life in this area — an insight which, by the way, many fine art enthusiasts of today have yet to have.

It is an excellent exhibit which makes it clear to Genevans, Finger Lakes residents, and visitors of any type, why Arthur Dove, the internationally acclaimed 20th-century American artist is Geneva’s most famous native son, a fact it is time to acknowledge and proclaim loudly. Don’t miss the chance to see this exhibit.

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