Absence and Presence: Arthur Dove’s Paintings “From the Radio”

by Jennifer Stettler Parsons, PhD student, University of Virginia

In 1937, Arthur Dove (1880-1946) mounted a comeback in the form of his annual exhibition at An American Place, the New York gallery of his dealer and close friend, Alfred Stieglitz. Dove’s time in Geneva, New York between 1933 and 1938 was rife with struggle and hardship, and his show the previous year was not well received.1 Critic Edward Alden Jewell had called the 1936 work “not indicative of his full artistic potentiality” and “inconsequential.”2 Even Dove’s wife, Helen (Reds) Torr, thought the works “looked small there.”3 (1936 diary, p. 54) The next year, Sherwood Anderson hailed the 1937 works as exhibiting “a new sureness of touch” and “a new maturity.”4 What had changed? Among the twenty paintings and thirty-two watercolors in the 1937 display, Dove offered a range of abstractions: landscapes, barn animals, farm structures, and trees. Most striking, however, were the suns and the moons. Never before had Dove produced so many cosmological works in the course of a year: a concentration of vibrating concentric circles in four sunrises, a Golden Sun, and two glowing moons created a dazzling, enigmatic display. The majority of the works’ titles are brief and unremarkable, but two of the paintings’ titles stand out in the catalogue, captured in quotation marks: “The Moon Was Laughing [at Me]”, and “Me and the Moon” (1937 exhibition catalog, Figures 1, 2). Both have been identified as titles after popular songs played on the radio in the 1930s, and matched to supporting evidence in diaries kept by Dove and Reds, where they call them the paintings “From the Radio”. 5 It was not the first time Dove titled works after songs, but it was nearly ten years since he had done so.

Figure 1. Arthur Dove, “The Moon Was Laughing at Me,” 1937, Wax emulsion on canvas, 6 1/4 x 8 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Bequest of Elmira Bier, 1976.

Figure 2. Arthur Dove, “Me and the Moon,” 1937, Wax emulsion on canvas, 18 x 26 in., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

While “The Moon Was Laughing at Me” (1937) and “Me and the Moon” (1937) (Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) are recognized as occupying an important place in this culminating moment of Dove’s career, as well as for their musical association, they have never been considered as anything more than an abstracted night sky.6 A careful analysis of primary sources, namely Dove’s personal diaries, correspondence, and writings, housed at the Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C., reveals the pair of paintings “From the Radio” to be a unique reflection of Dove’s lived experience during the past year, when he was faced with an abrupt and prolonged separation from his wife. This essay will consider the radio paintings in a new light in order to demonstrate their significance as analogues of Dove’s sensitivity to the presence and absence of one of his most important sources of creative power–his wife, Reds. I will then situate Dove’s moon paintings in relation to his sunrise series to reveal that his motivations for their creation were in line with the gendered norms of the male sun and the female moon. Given the fact that Dove’s attention to these subjects falls directly in sequence with Reds’ departure and return, this essay will argue that such a correspondence is anything but coincidental.

Helen Torr and Arthur Dove in Geneva, New York

Figure 3. Helen Torr and Arthur Dove in Geneva, New York, ca. 1936. Courtesy of Arthur G. Dove Estate. In Debra Bricker Balken, William C. Agee, and Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Arthur Dove: A Retrospective. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, and The Phillips Collection. (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1997), 178.

During the time Dove created his paintings “From the Radio” in 1936, Dove and Reds were living on the family farm in his hometown of Geneva, New York. (Figure 3) The couple moved there in 1933 after the death of Dove’s mother to settle the family estate. Dove’s return to Geneva was one fraught with anxiety. He wrote to Stieglitz, “There is something terrible about ‘Up State’ to me. I mean that part anyway. It is like walking on the bottom underwater.”7 The next month he wrote again, “The dread of going there is almost an obsession.”8 Desperately poor in the early 1930s, the couple moved into a house with no electricity and in need of many repairs. Separated from New York City by nearly 300 miles, isolated from their friends and the art world, Dove and Reds, who was an artist in her own right, intensely relied on each other for emotional support.9

Dove worked according to a cycle set by the seasons, the weather, and to the world he observed around him. Elizabeth Hutton Turner has established that Dove’s process and pattern of work was also contingent on the schedule of his annual exhibition, presented by Stieglitz each spring. Following the show in March and April, Dove typically gathered ideas in sketches and watercolors from spring through summer, and then painted, finished, and framed the works in the fall and winter. As a result, Dove’s annual exhibition reflected his production the preceding year. In 1936, however, Dove’s usual pattern was interrupted. That August, Reds’ mother took a fall and seriously injured herself, breaking bones in her spine.10 (1936 diary, p 116). Reds left Geneva immediately to care for her mother in Hartford, Connecticut. While Dove assumed she might be gone a matter of days or weeks, Reds was absent for two and a half months, the longest the pair was ever separated.11 They wrote each other every day. Dove’s letters to Reds describe his loneliness and how terribly he missed her, even of how he saw her in his dreams.12 The diary entries, usually managed by Reds, were filled with Dove’s notes in her absence.

On 24 September 1936, after nearly a month of living without his wife, Dove imbued his diary entries with new purpose. In addition to recording the temperature and weather conditions, Dove began making drawings in his diary (1936 diary, p. 137). These sketches, with their shadings and mysterious markings, appear to be evidence of the artist tracking the moon. The moon drawings continue each day with notations of temperature and barometric pressure, until Reds returned home on 8 November 1936.13 (1936 diary, p.155, 160). They mysteriously cease for two days on 15 and 16 November, but recommence on 17 November. (1936 diary, p.164-165) Dove continues to draw the moon every day until the end of the year. The new 1937 diary contains no moon drawings.(1937 diary, p.2) The drawings do not directly correspond to any established system of astronomical recording. The lunar notations, with their symbolic shadows and arrows (which change and move in each drawing), might be said to represent an individual system that Dove invented to document his observations in a personal and meaningful way.

In addition to observing the moon during Reds’ absence, Dove also began listening to the radio. Dove wrote in a letter to Stieglitz:

Am still alone here–for a week longer probably–until Reds’ mother leaves hospital. Has to stay in that damned plaster cast for 5-6 months longer. My brother is south, left his radio here. The moment I turned it on, it played Beethoven, and Bach right after. Nothing since but trash and politics. They should extend that 200 feet from the polls to the whole country for electioneering. Have given it up except at 6:30 A.M. when you get the time and the weather. It cheapens silence so.14

Yet, it seems Dove did listen to more than the time and the weather on the radio, he must have heard at least two musical performances for which the paintings “From the Radio” are evidence.

View of label, verso of The Moon Was Laughing at Me.

Figure 4. View of label, verso of “The Moon Was Laughing at Me.” Photo by author.

View of label, verso of Me and the Moon.

Figure 5. View of label, verso of “Me and the Moon.” Photo by author.

Six days after Reds returned from Hartford, she noted in the diary on 15 November, “In AM Arthur did an alive small music thing.”15 (1936 diary, p.164) The creation of this “alive small music thing” corresponds to the day Dove neglected to record the moon in his diary, suggesting that either the company of his wife, or his engagement with the painting eradicated his need, or distracted him from the ritual of observing and recording the moon that night. On 2 December, Dove wrote: “Did small “Moon is Laughing at Me”16 (1936 diary, p 172). The entry for 24 January records, “I [painted] “Me and the Moon.”17 (1937 diary, p. 14) On 14 February, Reds wrote, “Arthur started the second painting on “From the Radio,” song with moon in it.”18 (1937 diary, p. 24) The diary shows Dove worked on his painting “From the Radio” (“Me and the Moon”)for the next four days and finished it on 17 February 1937.19 (1937 diary, p.25-26) The titles “The Moon Was Laughing at Me” and “Me and the Moon” correspond to the printed titles on the verso labels of both works, written in what appears to be Dove’s own hand. The additional inscription “Radio” on the lower left corners of both labels further proves their association.20 Dove also retained the quotations as part of the paintings’ official titles in an annual inventory written in the back of a diary. 21 (1935-37 diary, p 57)

During his career, Dove painted approximately seventeen paintings related to music between 1913 and 1944. The pinnacle of this activity came in 1927 when he painted six canvases inspired by jazz music. He exhibited them at Stieglitz’s Intimate Gallery in December 1927 and January 1928 (1927 exhibition catalog): George Gershwin–“Rhapsody in Blue,” Part I (1927) (Figure 6); George Gershwin–“Rhapsody in Blue,” Part II (1927) (Figure 7); George Gershwin–“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” (1927) (Figure 8); Orange Grove in California–Irving Berlin (1927) (Figure 9); Rhythm Rag (1927); and Improvision (1927) (Figure 10).22 Dove’s 1920s jazz paintings have been discussed in terms of the music-painting analogy, abstraction, and his interest in synesthesia within the context of the growing importance of jazz music and popular culture for American artists.23 More recently, Harry Cooper and Rachael DeLue have considered specifically Dove’s transcription to abstract painting the sounds he had heard on phonograph records, and the intersection of his art with forms of early twentieth-century technology.24 The paintings “From the Radio” relate to Dove’s larger musical oeuvre, but are unique in their specificity: both temporally, through the transitory experience of hearing a song on the radio; and, as I will show, in subject matter, through their equivalence to a very specific subjective experience. Was it Reds’ absence or presence that inspired the artist to identify with the moon? The objects themselves, with their suggestive song titles, provide an interpretive key.

Figure 6. Arthur Dove, George Gershwin–“Rhapsody in Blue,” Part I, 1927, Oil and metallic paint with clock spring on aluminum support, 11¾ x 9¾, Collection Andrew Crispo.

Figure 7. Arthur Dove, George Gershwin–“Rhapsody in Blue,” Part II, 1927, Oil, metallic paint, and ink on paper, 20½ x 15½ in., Michael Scharf G.I.T.

Figure 8. Arthur Dove, George Gershwin–“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”, 1927, Ink, metallic paint, and oil on paperboard, 20 x 15 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation

Figure 9. Arthur Dove, Orange Grove in California—Irving Berlin, 1927, Oil on board, 20 1/16 x 15 in., Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Figure 10. Arthur Dove, Improvision, Oil on building board, 15½ x 14½”. Andrew Crispo Gallery, New York.

Without the written evidence in the Doves’ diaries, it is unlikely a viewer would recognize the radio paintings’ relationship as a pair. The size of “Me and the Moon,” at 18 x 26 inches is almost three times larger than its minute counterpart, “The Moon Was Laughing at Me,which measures only 6¼ by 8¼ inches. The relative clarity and central composition of Dove’s second painting is counteracted by the first painting’s confusion of flat, puzzled forms of pastel yellows and pinks, against dark and muddied blues and reds. The moon’s indistinct edges melt into a blue-green haze. Its placement in the top left corner of the canvas is more conventional than its counterpart; it appears punctuated by forms reaching from below, pulling it towards a foreground of nocturnal colors. By contrast, Dove centers “Me and the Moon” on the glowing presence of the moon itself, framed on its north side by a single white looping line, and crossing diagonal waves of blue, tan, and ochre. Examinations of the paintings’ namesakes provide meaningful guidance towards understanding the ambiguity of these abstractions.

When Reds returned home to her husband, the first painting Dove created was “The Moon Was Laughing at Me.” The title must be a variation of the song title, “The Moon is Grinning at Me,” recorded by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band on 15 October 1936, during the span of Reds’ absence.25 In an upbeat and playful tone, the teasing lyrics narrate the story of the moon tricking the vocalist into falling in love with a woman who breaks his heart:

The Moon is Grinning at Me  , Mills Blue Rhythm Band, 1936

The moon is grinning at me for falling in love with you,
The stars are smiling at me for thinking that you’d be true,
How they knew you’d let me down, give me the well-known run around, They knew you’d be unfair, still they made me care,
They really played a joke on me.
The moon is grinning at me for giving my heart to you,
He knew you’d break it in two, was that a nice thing to do?
I know I’ll never trust the moon, not even in a night in June,
The moon is grinning at me for falling in love with you.

Dove must have enjoyed the song and decided to modify the title to better suit the story of his own experience; the moon laughing at him over his heartache. In this context, the tiny painting represents a kind of private joke.

By substituting ‘laughter’ for ‘grinning,’ in the title of this painting, Dove may have been referencing the theories of Henri Bergson, whose book, Laughter, Dove most likely knew. Reds recorded in the diary in the 1920s that Dove bought “Bergson books.”26 (1925 diary, p. 44) Bergson describes the comic spirit embodied in laughter as a living thing. His definition supports the hypothesis that Dove imagined the moon as a living companion:

The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human. A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression.27

Bergson goes on to assert that the comic needed company, or “other intelligences,” in order to function. He writes,

You would hardly appreciate the comic if you felt yourself isolated from others. Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo. Listen to it carefully: it is not an articulate, clear, well-defined sound; it is something which would fain be prolonged by reverberating from one to another, something beginning with a crash, to continue in successive rumblings, like thunder in the mountain. It can travel within as wide a circle as you please: the circle remains, none the less, a closed one. Our laughter is always the laughter of a group.28

If Dove followed Bergson, then he could not appreciate laughter during his separation from Reds. It was her return which allowed him to experience the laughter of the moon and paint “The Moon Was Laughing at Me” one week after she arrived home.29 If laughter needed an echo, as Bergson claimed, Dove surely found his echo in Reds.

The second painting “From the Radio” finds its namesake in the song “Me and the Moon,” composed by Walter Hirsch and Lou Handman. Hal Kemp and his Orchestra recorded the song in July 1936, with vocals by Maxine Grey.30 The period between 1934 and 1937 was the height of the Hal Kemp Orchestra’s commercial success and “Me and the Moon” was one of their billboard chart-toppers. In contrast to the good-humored, mischievous quality of “The Moon is Grinning at Me,” “Me and the Moon” has a slower, dreamier melody. A reading of the song’s lyrics against the context of Reds’ absence is revealing:

Me and the Moon  , Hal Kemp Orchestra, 1936

Me and the Moon are wondering where you can be
Me and the Moon are lonely for your company
I’ve asked the Moon to find you
Somewhere behind a star
I want him to remind you
How dear to me you are
Me and the Moon are gazing through a hazy light
All too soon I lost you on a somber night
I’m afraid of the dawn cause you and the Moon will both be gone
There’s Me and the Moon and pretty soon it’ll just be me.

The content of the lyrics paired with the chronology of recent events in Dove’s life strongly suggest that the artist heard this song during the fall of 1936 while he was separated from his wife, causing him to conjure up the idea for this painting.

Figure 11. Arthur Dove, “Me and the Moon,” undated. Pencil, 7 x 10 in. The Phillips Collection, Gift of William E. O’Reilly in memory of Leland Bell and Lawrence Gowing, 1991

Figure 12. Photograph of “Me and the Moon” under infrared lighting. Courtesy Phillips Collection, Conservation department.

Around 1930, Dove began making preparatory sketches regularly. Reds would say, “Arthur’s gone out prowling.”31 He typically made small sketches, drawings, or watercolors while out and returned to the studio to realize them on canvas.32 While I have been unable to locate a sketch for “The Moon Was Laughing at Me,” a drawing at the Phillips Collection pictures the preliminary idea for “Me and the Moon,” which is virtually unchanged in the final product (Figure 11). Dove periodically went to the local Agricultural Experiment Station to use its pantograph enlarger, which is perhaps how he enlarged the drawing so precisely.33 In addition to their formal relationship, the drawing contains the title “Me and the Moon,” written in the bottom right-hand corner. Whether or not Dove first heard the song, or made the drawing is not critical, since either way he willfully attributed the forms in the drawing to the song.

An examination of the painting with infrared light shows a correspondence between elements in the paint surface matched in the ground layers, such as the looping line that frames the north side of the moon.34 (Figure 12) Infrared light also reveals an additional looping line with smaller, more numerous loops on the lower, right side of the moon beneath surface layers of paint. Perhaps Dove considered adding more detail to express the cadences of the musical instruments in the song, as he had in earlier music paintings, like George Gershwin–“Rhapsody in Blue,” Part II (1927), and Orange Grove in California by Irving Berlin (1927), where the lines burst forth with jazz energy. He may have eliminated the extra looping lines to evoke a quieter mood, and maintain a composition of relative simplicity in correspondence with the song’s tone.

Dove’s diary entries, containing moon drawings sketched during Reds’ absence, combined with the lyrics of the painting’s song title suggest the artist thought of his wife each night as he gazed at the moon. Looking at the moon and imagining others engaged in a similar act is a well-known romantic means of connection. “Me and the Moon” commemorates the loneliness Dove experienced during the time the idea for the work formed. The balanced composition and muted, cool colors express calm, maybe sadness–perhaps a “somber night,” to quote the lyrics. The top right quarter of the painting, with brown waves of color, may signal the earth to represent the coming dawn–a dreaded dawn, according to the song, since the moon could no longer serve as a companion. Symbolically the moon may appear broken in half; perhaps it signifies heartbreak. The frenetic lines of the 1927 jazz paintings have given way to the clarity of just two meandering lines. The bright, chaotic variety of colors evoking the 1920s jazz bands have been reduced to about four colors in calm, muted tones. The radio paintings’ formal differences from the earlier music works match the emotion and intimate meaning they memorialize.

A second possible definition for “radio” emerges when considering Dove’s interest in science, theosophy, and the occult. Dove did not conform to any single religion or school of thought, but culled his beliefs from many sources and influences.35 In the 1920s, the Doves became close friends with Stieglitz’s niece, Elizabeth Davidson, and her husband, Donald. The Davidsons practiced Vedanta, a school of Hinduism concerned with teaching the individual to seek direct experience with his or her true nature to ultimately identify with the Supreme Soul. It holds that each person is qualified to attain the highest illumination if they are willing to put forth sincere and intense effort. The Davidsons brought Eastern thought into the Doves’ lives, sending books, and visiting them often. Dove often mentioned the Davidsons’ astrological predictions in the diaries and in letters to both Stieglitz and Reds.

Dove’s writings reflect the Davidsons’ influence and his own belief in telepathy. In an unpublished manuscript from 1928-29, Dove mused over the public’s need for modern invention, and its failure to acknowledge the telepathic powers of Eastern medicine men throughout history (typewritten essays, p. 16-17):

Their most sensitive individuals [the Chinese] could do things a thousand years ago that our modern world is all stirred up inventing instruments to do. We think it remarkable to be able to hear what is now happening at a distance with ear phones clamped to our heads, and many of those fine old individuals in the eastern countries thought nothing of doing the same thing in the present, past, or future.36

Dove proposes there is no need for a new technological device when a person already possesses the tools for communication within himself. He continued,

The human being is probably born with a far finer radio outfit than he ever invents for himself afterward. More people who have this gift are appearing every day…This so called sixth sense is very closely connected with what is being done by the moderns in painting, literature, and music. They may not admit it, but it is.37

Dove’s son, William Dove, told Sherry Cohn in an interview, “Father believed that he had certain powers.”38

The written correspondence between Dove and Reds during their separation further documents Dove’s belief that he could telepathically communicate across time and space. After the first night without his wife, Dove wrote to her (correspondence, p. 11-12):

It was so lovely to dream of you last night am going to concentrate to-night.…I will mail this on way to Nebels for dinner. Won’t stay long. I got work to do to-night concentration! Do not want to pull for you so hard you will be unhappy but I miss you awful.39

Three days later Dove dreamt of Reds again (correspondence, p. 14-15):

This morning answering the telephone in a dream…You were there and I was hugging you. It seemed so real and lovely. Wanted to spend the morning in bed to see if I could get you again….Feel as though I were in a strange country and didn’t know the language. I need you so.

The passage suggests Dove believed he could deliberately channel Reds through his dreams. He also suggested that they were always connected: “Love so much darling. How I would love to have you here. Am going to chain us together when you done. We are anyway always.”40 Perhaps these ambiguous dream states and telepathic attempts, or “pulling,” are what Dove abstracts into “The Moon Was Laughing at Me.”

Knowing Dove’s belief in telepathy and cosmic radio connections, his paintings invite a more nuanced definition of radio–not only as an electronic audio device, but radio waves as celestial transmitters of communication. The blue and brown stripes of color in “Me and the Moon” may be interpreted not only as landscape elements, but as radio waves vibrating across expanses of earth. In another undated manuscript Dove wrote, “We want something white somewhere/ a crystal/ A transparent thing with which we can see–see ourselves–that crystal mirror is in–In some it is colored in some it has no color working.”41 (handwritten essays, p. 5) The suggestion of a mirror from which to see oneself conjures the idea of “Me and the Moon” as a kind of reflection, which might account for the moon’s unusual compositional placement in the bottom half of the painting, as a reflection in water. Dove’s feeling that the color white contained the power of communication enables a symbolism of the white lines that meander across the canvas of “Me and the Moon” as a kind of radio wave, reaching out from Geneva to connect with Reds so far away.

While this interpretation might seem excessively literal, it was, in fact, in Dove’s nature to be rather flatfooted, and to relate to his works on an extremely personal level. Dove often wrote of his work in terms of portraiture. In a letter updating Stieglitz on his progress in 1930, Dove wrote:

Just hit a high spot along with labor pains that may be “All too human.” Just feel that a small “4 x 5” drawing this afternoon may open up the way to self-portraiture in painting which after all is what painting is…It is strange what we have to go through to find out that we are through.42

Figure 13. Arthur Dove, Bessie of New York, 1932, Baltimore Museum of Art

Figure 14. Arthur Dove, Portrait of Ralph Dusenberry, 1924, Oil, folding wooden ruler, wood, and printed paper pasted on canvas, 22 x 18 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (29.70.36)

Figure 15. Arthur Dove, Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz, 1925, Camera lens, photographic plate, clock and watch springs, and steel wool on cardboard, 15 7/8 x 12 1/8 in., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Purchase

Figure 16. Arthur Dove, Reds, c. 1926, watercolor, pencil, hair on paper, 9 1/4 x 8 3/4 in., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, 1989.2.57

Figure 17. Arthur Dove, Sunrise I, 1936, Wax emulsion on canvas, 25 x 35 in, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Shein Collection.

Figure 18. Arthur Dove, Sunrise II, 1936, Wax emulsion on canvas, 25 x 35 in., Mr. and Mrs. Meredith J. Long.

Figure 19. Arthur Dove, Sunrise III, 1936, Wax emulsion and oil on canvas, 25 x 35 in., Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Katherine S. Dreier to the Collection Société Anonyme.

His choice of words suggests the intense energy Dove put into creating his works, almost as if he was giving birth to them. During an earlier moment in his career, after an extended struggle to paint, Dove’s creativity burst forth (soon after he met Reds for the first time). He wrote to Stieglitz, “have five or six drawings or paintings that are almost self-portraits in spite of their having been done from outside things. They seem more real than anything yet. It is great to be at it again, feel more like a person than I have in years.”43 Painting made Dove feel alive, and in turn, he felt intimately connected to objects he produced. Once in 1933, Duncan Phillips suggested Dove cut off a portion of his painting Bessie of New York (1932) (Figure 13). Dove was incensed and apparently had to rewrite his first letter, telling Phillips, “I suppose I just naturally dreaded thinking of a major operation on one of the paintings. They get to be like people to me.”44

The anthropomorphic qualities with which Dove imbued his work raises the question of portraiture in the paintings “From the Radio.” Many of Dove’s collages in the 1920s are abstract portraits of people close to him. They include homages to his neighbor, Ralph Dusenberry (1924) (Figure 14), a Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz (1925) (Figure 15), and his Grandmother (1925). Reds was also the subject of one of his collages in 1926, commemorating her by including a lock of her red hair (Figure 16). “The Moon Was Laughing at Me” and “Me and the Moon,” by the very nature of their titles and the narratives told in their lyrics cannot be purely self-portraits, since they include the character of the moon. Based on the lyrics, I would also negate the possibility of the moon symbolizing Reds. For example, in the lyrics for the first radio painting, “The moon is grinning at me for falling in love with you,”–the moon grins at Dove for falling in love with Reds. In the second case: “Me and the Moon are wondering where you can be, Me and the Moon are lonely for your company,”–the moon joins Dove in yearning for Reds’ presence. True to earlier examples then, and in line with Bergson’s Laughter, Dove assigned a human quality to the moon, and memorialized his connection to it in these works. Therefore, the paintings are not portraits in the traditional sense, but analogues for his experience.

What about the relationship of the moon paintings “From the Radio” to the sunrises that shone so bright in Dove’s 1937 show? In the days leading up to his mother-in-law’s injury, Dove was making watercolor studies for what would become his Sunrise series.45 (1936 diary, p. 114). After Reds departed for Hartford, Dove painted Sunrise I (Figure 17) from 29 August to 23 September (1936 diary, p. 124). The first moon drawings in the diary begin the next day on 24 September. In the following months, while alone, he painted Sunrise II (Figure 18), Sunrise III (Figure 19), Slaughter House, Outlet, and Pigs.46

The Sunrise series has often been discussed in terms of pantheism and Dove’s transcendental worship of nature. Turner and Sarah Greenough have discussed the phallic nature of the paintings as a narrative tale of creation.47 Frederick Wight called the series a “descriptive sequence in impregnation.”48 Based on the evidence presented here, the possibility of the paintings as representative of sexual frustration may also be introduced. However, since the sun was on Dove’s mind before Reds left, her absence was not the sole inspiration for his interest in taking up the subject. Another rare event punctuated Dove’s routine in 1936, one that probably continued to weigh on his mind.

In April 1936, Dove and Reds took their first and only trip to New York City during the five years they resided in Geneva. The two-week trip included visits to An American Place to see Dove’s annual show, and to the Museum of Modern Art, where Alfred Barr had assembled an ambitious display in the landmark exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art.”49 Dove was not included in the show, but recorded in the diary that it was a “fine show of abstractions.”50 (1936 diary, p. 56) While Barr would include Dove in the MoMA’s exhibition, “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” later that December, he appears to have overlooked Dove’s early abstractions and neglected to credit his importance. Dove’s reputation had been firmly established by the late 1920s as a leading member of the American avant-garde, but was he still relevant? Turner notes that this omission, combined with Jewell’s scathing criticism would have given Dove pause.51 In light of this chronology, Dove may have taken up the Sunrises in order to reassert his role as “the man in painting,” a role accentuated by Reds’ absence.

Debra Bricker Balken and Marcia Brennan have written about the male role assigned to Dove within the Stieglitz circle.52 As early as 1921, Paul Rosenfeld called Dove, along with John Marin, the male counterparts to the feminized persona of Georgia O’Keeffe.53 In Rosenfeld’s Port of New York (1924), he wrote, “For Dove is very directly the man in painting, precisely as Georgia O’Keeffe is the female; neither type had been known in quite the degree of purity before.”54 Rosenfeld also equated Dove’s work in reference to his body, writing that his creation of art “had the power of making all of its bodily functions sweet by relating the whole of life to that function.”55 Stieglitz, Sherwood Anderson, Waldo Frank, and Edmund Wilson would all perpetuate Dove’s male role in painting throughout his career.56

In an oft quoted letter to Stieglitz in December 1930, Dove critiqued Samuel Kootz’s reading of O’Keeffe’s work in his recently released book, Modern American Painters (1930). In his analysis, Kootz asserted that O’Keeffe’s early work showed a “womanly preoccupation with sex, an uneasy selection of phallic symbols in her flowers,” which, while “being a woman and only secondarily an artist,” the assertion of her sex impeded her talent.57 In an offense to her capability, Kootz declared that it was not O’Keeffe’s painting which aroused the public, but the subject of femininity itself. Dove admired the book as a whole but questioned Kootz’s criticism of O’Keeffe’s supposed inclusion of sex subjects in her work because she was a woman. Dove responded in a letter to Stieglitz,

In the first part of the book he justly criticizes the sexless thinking of the men painters of this country and then proceeds to demand less sex of the woman O’Keeffe… A person’s way of painting fits his feeling….The bursting of a phallic symbol into white light may be the thing we all need. Otherwise it would not bother them so.58

Dove’s Sunrise series is, in effect, a response to Kootz’s denigration of O’Keeffe’s work. His blatantly phallic works answer his own proposal for freedom of sexual subjects, as the person’s “painting fit his feeling.” Dove’s isolation and separation from his wife, paired with his deep-seated role as the man in painting fueled Dove’s production of the powerful, autonomous Sunrises during his days alone.

Returning to the 1937 exhibition at An American Place, William Einstein wrote of Dove in the catalogue,

Dove, speaking a modern language, tells ageless truths about nature–trees, hills, day with the sun, night with the moon….All work of quality–paintings, music, or craft-mechanical or otherwise–exists in a world of truth–the truth to be read–but it takes some effort to attain a certain spirit.59

Perhaps one of the great successes of Dove’s work is its ability to be at once universal and highly individual. While the viewer may find “ageless truths” in Dove’s paintings, the works simultaneously document ephemeral, intensely personal episodes–a “truth to be read” perhaps only in Dove’s personal diaries. Isolated in Geneva, his most cherished support, Reds, had suddenly vanished, leaving him alone to spend days with the sun and nights with the moon. Reds’ absence contributed to the sexual frustration so evident within the sunrise paintings. Her absence also inspired Dove to look to the moon, but it was her presence which enabled him to paint it.

It appears that “The Moon Was Laughing at Me” and “Me and the Moon” are Dove’s only paintings “From the Radio.”60 If he intended to produce others, his plans were cut short by Stieglitz’s short notice that he was ready to hang Dove’s annual exhibition61 (1937 diary, p. 24). Dove received Stieglitz’s letter on 13 February 1937 and the next day, on 14 February, Dove took up “Me and the Moon.” He was obviously anxious to have it included in his upcoming show, as a mate to his first and already completed radio painting. It must be coincidence that Dove created the painting on Valentine’s Day, but it supports the notion that the radio paintings are commemorations of Dove’s experience without his beloved wife by his side, when he looked to the sky for comfort and companionship.


1 ↩ This essay was written as a result of a graduate seminar held jointly at the University of Virginia and the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., taught by Professor Elizabeth Hutton Turner. I am extremely grateful to my professors and colleagues at the University of Virginia, and to the staff at the Phillips for their assistance during my research and writing, especially to Matthew Affron, Patti Favero, Karen Schneider, Roberta K. Tarbell, and most of all, Professor Turner, for her invaluable guidance.

This essay relies heavily on Elizabeth Hutton Turner’s scholarship of Dove’s Geneva years. See Elizabeth Hutton Turner, “Going Home: Geneva, 1933-1938,” in Debra Bricker Balken, William C. Agee, and Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Arthur Dove: A Retrospective. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, and The Phillips Collection.(Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1997), 95-113.

2 ↩ Edward Alden Jewell, “The Realm of Art: Comment on Current Shows,” New York Times, 26 April, 1936, sec. 9, 7.

3 ↩ Entry 14 April, 1936. Arthur and Helen Torr Dove Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution [hereafter Dove Papers], Series 3: Writings. Diaries. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9).

4 ↩ Sherwood Anderson to Dove, 12 April, 1937. The Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe Archives, manuscript 85, series 1, box 2, Yale Collection of American Literature. Quoted in Elizabeth Hutton Turner, “Going Home: Geneva, 1933-1938,” in Debra Bricker Balken, William C. Agee, and Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Arthur Dove: A Retrospective. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, and The Phillips Collection.(Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1997), 107.

5 ↩ Diary entries mention paintings “From the Radio” in entries 14-17, February 1937, Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9). Ann Lee Morgan identified “The Moon Was Laughing at Me” as named after a popular song in her catalogue raisonné, but does not recognize the work as one of a pair with “Me and the Moon.” Donna M. Cassidy was the first to discover the radio paintings as a pair and connect them with the diary entries and popular songs heard on the radio. Donna M. Cassidy, “Jazz Paintings and National Identity: The Abstract Art of Arthur Dove and Stuart Davis,” in Painting the Musical City: Jazz and Cultural Identity in American Art, 1910-1940. (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1997), 92, 172. And Donna M. Cassidy, “The Painted Music of America in the works of Arthur G. Dove, John Marin, and Joseph Stella: An Aspect of Cultural Nationalism.” PhD Diss. (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Press, 1988), 141-142. See also Ann Lee Morgan. Arthur Dove: Life and Work. With a Catalogue Raisonné. (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984), 233.

6 ↩ Duncan Phillips acquired the works separately, and it is doubtful he knew or cared about their identities as a musical pair. Phillips’ assistant, Elmira Bier recommended he purchase “Me and the Moon” from Dove’s 1937 exhibition after seeing the show in March. Phillips was distracted by negotiations with Stieglitz to purchase Dove’s collage Goin’ Fishin’ (1925), which he did for $2,000, the highest price Dove had received for any work. Consequently, Stieglitz took “Me and the Moon” as a replacement for his own collection. Two months after this acquisition, Phillips wrote to Dove expressing his regret in missing “Me and the Moon,” calling it a “masterpiece…which was purchased before I had a chance to get it. It is a glorious picture.” (Phillips to Dove, 26 May 1937, Phillips Collection Archives.) Sometime after he acquired it, Phillips changed the painting’s title from “Me and the Moon,” to Rise of the Full Moon, thereby erasing its musical identity. While this was not unusual for the collector, who frequently altered the titles of his acquisitions, it shows a certain disregard for the work’s association with a song. For Phillips Collection title changes, see Sasha M. Newman, Arthur Dove and Duncan Phillips: Artist and Patron. (Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, in association with George Braziller, Inc., New York), 54. Phillips later deaccessioned “The Moon Was Laughing at Me” in 1943 whereby he gifted it to Elmira Bier. It returned to the museum’s collection through Bier’s bequest in 1976.

7 ↩ Dove to Stieglitz, 18 May 1933, Ann Lee Morgan, ed. Dear Stieglitz, Dear Dove. (Newark: University of Delaware, 1988), 271.

8 ↩ Dove to Stieglitz, June 1933, Morgan 1988, 276.

9 ↩ For more on Dove and Reds’ relationship before and after their time in Geneva, see Anne Cohen DePietro, Arthur Dove and Helen Torr: The Huntington Years. The Heckscher Museum. Huntington, New York, 1989.

10 ↩ Entries 13 August 1936, 14 August 1936, Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9). The handwriting changes noticeably from Reds’ to Dove’s hand when Reds takes leave.

11 ↩ According to the diaries and letters between Dove and Stieglitz, Reds left Geneva on 14 August 1936 and returned 8 November 1937. See Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9) and Morgan 1988, 357-364.

12 ↩ Dove Papers, Series 2: Correspondence. Family Correspondence. Arthur Dove to Helen Torr Dove, 1933-1934, 1936. (Box 1, Folders 32-36).

13 ↩ In entry 31 October 1936, Dove writes “Reds to be home Sunday night,” which would be 8 November. The entry on 8 November contains no mention of Reds, but her handwriting reappears in the diaries 10 November. As far as I have seen, the moon drawings are unique to these entries. I have not found any drawings or notations comparable to these in Dove’s diaries between 1925 and 1945.

14 ↩ Dove to Stieglitz, 24 October 1936. Morgan, 362-363.

15 ↩ Entry 15 November 1936, Dove Papers, Series 3: Writing: Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9).

16 ↩ Entry 2 December 1936, Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9).

17 ↩ Entry 24 January 1937, Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9).

18 ↩ Entries 14-17 February 1937. Reds eventually could not recall the title for “Me and the Moon” when she made her entry on February 14th, only that it was a song with a moon in it. Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9).

19 ↩ Entry 15 February 1937, “Took down the frame for “From the Radio”; 16 February 1937, “Arthur working on “From the Radio.”; 17 February 1937, “Arthur finished “From the Radio.” The next day Dove Reds recorded, “Arthur worked on “Silo.” Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9).

20 ↩ The word ‘Radio’ is clearly written on the label for “The Moon Was Laughing at Me”. The label for “Me and the Moon” has been torn, but by comparing them one can make out the top of the word ‘Radio.’ The handwriting on these labels appears to match Dove’s script in his diaries and writings.

21 ↩ Back of 1935 diary, Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 8).

22 ↩ Arthur G. Dove Paintings, 1927. The Intimate Gallery: Room 303. December 12–January 11 1927-28. The Anderson Galleries Building, 489 Park Avenue, New York, n.p. Improvision may or may not be intentionally misspelled, in homage to Kandinsky’s Improvisations. See Cassidy, “Arthur Dove’s Music Paintings,”19, 55. Rhythm Rag is lost and no image exists.

23 ↩ See Judith Zilczer, “Synaesthesia and Popular Culture: Arthur Dove, George Gershwin, and the “Rhapsody in Blue,”” Art Journal 44 No. 4 (Winter 1984): 361-366; Cassidy, “The Painting Music”; Donna M. Cassidy, “Arthur Dove’s Music Paintings of the Jazz Age,” American Art Journal 20 No. 1 (1988): 4-23.; Cassidy, “Jazz Paintings”; Judith Zilczer, “Music for the Eyes: Abstract Painting and Light Art,” in Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900. (Thames and Hudson), 25-82.

24 ↩ See Harry Cooper, “Arthur Dove Paints a Record,” Source Notes in the History of Art 44 No. 2 (Winter 2005): 70-77.; Rachael Z. DeLue, “Arthur Dove, painting, and phonography,” History and Technology 27 No. 1 (March 2011): 113-121.

25 ↩ CD Insert, Mills Blue Rhythm Band 1936-1937, The Chronological Classics, Classics Records, 1993.

26 ↩ An excerpt from Laughter called “On the Object of Art,” was published in Camera Work (which Dove subscribed to) No. 37, January 1912. Cohn cites that Reds also recorded in the diary that Dove “bought books by Bergson” in December 1925. See entries 15 December 1925 and 19 December 1925, which reads “bought more Bergson books.” Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries. Diaries, 1924-1926. (Box 1, Folder 53). Cohn, 51.

27 ↩ Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. (MacMillan Company, 1913), 3.

28 ↩ Ibid., 5.

29 ↩ It is worth noting that Dove also altered the song title from the present to past tense, substituting “is” for “was,” further indicating the painting as representative of a memory.

30 ↩ CD insert, The Best of Hal Kemp and His Orchestra. Collector’s Choice Music, Sony Music Special Products, Sony Musical Entertainment Inc., 2000.

31 ↩ Quoted but not cited in Sherrye Cohn. Arthur Dove: Nature as Symbol. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985), 1.

32 ↩ I have been unable to locate watercolor sketches for “The Moon Was Laughing at Me,” or “Me and the Moon.” One may assume that if there were any Dove would have included them in the 1937 exhibition, as he did for most of the other works on display. See Melanie Kirschner, Arthur Dove: Watercolors and Pastels. (New York: George Braziller Publishers, 1998), 36-44.

33 ↩ Turner, “Going Home: Geneva, 1933-1938,” 102.

34 ↩ My thanks to Patti Favero and the conservation department at the Phillips Collection for this information.

35 ↩ For a detailed discussion, see Cohn’s chapters, “Science: Abstraction’s Rationale” and “Theosophy: A Spiritual Focus,” 19-80.

36 ↩ Unpublished manuscript, Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Writings by Arthur Dove. Typewritten Essays, 1928-1929. (Box 3, Folder 3).

37 ↩ Ibid.

38 ↩ Cohn, 56. Cohn cites her interview with William Dove, 14 October 1980.

39 ↩ Dove to Reds, 15 August 1936. Dove Papers, Series 2: Correspondence. Family Correspondence. Arthur Dove to Helen Torr Dove, 1933-1934, 1936. (Box 1, Folder 32).

40 ↩ Dove to Reds, 28 August 1936, Dove Papers, Series 2: Correspondence. Family Correspondence. Arthur Dove to Helen Torr Dove, 1933-1934, 1936. (Box 1, Folder 33).

41 ↩ Undated manuscript, Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Writings by Arthur Dove. Handwritten Essays, undated. (Box 2, Folder 17).

42 ↩ Dove to Stieglitz, 11 July 1930. Morgan 1988, 194.

43 ↩ Dove to Stieglitz, probably August 1921. Morgan 1988, 75.

44 ↩ Dove to Duncan Phillips, probably 16-18 May 1933, in Elizabeth Hutton Turner, In the American Grain: Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz: The Stieglitz Circle at the Phillips Collection. (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995), 149, 151.

45 ↩ Reds recorded in the diary: 9 August 1936 “Arthur did a beautiful sunrise-sunspots-watercolor”; 10 August 1936 “Arthur did another lovely sunrise-2 sunspots-water”; 11 August 1936 “Arthur did a sun”; 12 August 1936“Arthur did another swell sun.” Reds mother fell on 13 August and Reds departed on 14 August 1936. Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9).

46 ↩ See diary entries from 29 August 1936 to 8 November 1936. Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9). Dove doesn’t paint Sunrise IV until 1937.

47 ↩ See Turner, “Going Home: Geneva, 1933-1938,” 106-107. And Sarah Greenough’s catalogue entry for Dove’s Sunrise I, in Charles Brock and Nancy Anderson, American Modernism: The Shein Collection. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2010), 56-59.

48 ↩ Frederick S. Wight, Arthur G. Dove. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958), 68.

49 ↩ While Barr focused mostly on European abstraction, he did include Man Ray and Alexander Calder.

50 ↩ Entry 17 April 1936. Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9).

51 ↩ Turner, “Going Home: Geneva, 1933-1938,” 105.

52 ↩ See Debra Bricker Balken’s essay “Continuities and Digressions in the Work of Arthur Dove from 1907 to 1933,” in Arthur Dove: A Retrospective, 17-35. And Marcia Brennan’s chapter “Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe: Corporeal Transparency and Strategies of Inclusion,” in her book Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American formalist Aesthetics. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 96-135.

53 ↩ See Paul Rosenfeld, “American Painting,” Dial 71 (December 1921), 666.

54 ↩ Paul Rosenfeld, Port of New York. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966), 170.

55 ↩ Ibid, 169.

56 ↩ Balken, “Continuities and Digressions in the Work of Arthur Dove from 1907 to 1933,” 27.

57 ↩ Samuel M. Kootz, Modern American Painters. (Norwood, Mass.: Plimpton Press, Brewer & Warren Inc., 1930), 49.

58 ↩ Dove to Stieglitz, 4 December 1930. Morgan 1988, 201-202.

59 ↩ William Einstein, “Arthur G. Dove,” In Arthur G. Dove New Oils and Water Colors. Exh. Cat. An American Place, New York. Introduction by William Einstein. March 23-April 16, 1937, n.p.

60 ↩ The radio paintings were not, however, Dove’s last paintings after music. In 1938 he painted Swing Music (Louis Armstrong) and later Primitive Music (1944), discussed by Zilczer, “Music for the Eyes,” 62-67. In her article, Rachael DeLue footnotes that she will address the pair I have described “From the Radio,” along with Swing Music (Louis Armstrong) “in terms of their relation to the record pictures and consider as well the role of other communication and sound technologies” in her forthcoming book, Arthur Dove and the Art of Translation, DeLue, “Arthur Dove, painting, and phonography,” 120.

61 ↩ Reds wrote in the diary, “Letter from Stieglitz saying Arthur is to be next–his show to be hung by March 18.” Entry 13 February, 1937. Dove Papers, Series 3: Writings. Diaries. Diaries, 1927-1945. (Box 2, Folder 9).