Hometowns can be difficult. If you stay, nothing seems to change. If you leave and return, nothing is as you remember it. However, either way there is always a connection to where you grew up.
Arthur Dove (1880-1946) felt this acutely. After graduating from Cornell University in 1903, he moved to New York City and became a successful magazine illustrator. Over the next 30 years he became America’s first abstract painter. Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz and other American modernists were his friends and colleagues.
As the saying goes in Geneva, that and 10 cents got Dove a cup of coffee. When he returned in 1933 to help settle his late parents’ estate, he was a misfit in his hometown. In 1921 he had left his wife, Genevan Florence Dorsey, to live with artist Helen Torr (who was also married). Florence’s death in 1929 and Dove’s eventual marriage to Torr did not right the wrong in many people’s eyes.
Genevans were not sure what Dove did for a living. Reading art reviews and seeing the paintings did not help as they did not look like anything recognizable. That was Dove’s goal — “I would like to make something that … does not remind anyone of any other things” — but telling that to people did not work.
Dove and Torr stayed in Geneva from 1933 to 1938. The Dove family owned farmhouses and land north of the city on Route 14. The couple lived in one house until it was sold, then another. In 1937 they moved into the third floor of the Dove Block on the corner of Exchange and Castle streets. It was known as Dove’s Hall and had hosted National Guard drills, concerts and charity balls. As a studio and residence, it provided Dove and his wife with heat, running water and three stories of separation from the public.
While Dove’s relationship with locals may have been difficult, he loved Geneva as a place. In his youth he hunted, fished and learned to paint in the outdoors. In 1909 he returned home to camp in the woods and study nature. This was the beginning of his abstract painting, derived from nature rather than his imagination.
During his Geneva residency Dove made more than 100 sketches per year. They were small, about 5-by-7 inches or less, and were his way of taking notes. The sketches ranged from line drawings with accents of color to more complete watercolors. Dove framed, exhibited and sold some of the works through Alfred Stieglitz’s New York City gallery. He kept others to serve as models for abstract paintings.
Dove tried to rise early and sketch in the morning. Some days he visited the places he knew as a boy, like Loomis Woods and the Canandaigua Outlet near Oaks Corners. He painted subjects and views that were near his farmhouse. He did a series of animal paintings: Goat, Pig and Chewing Cow. He was interested in the sun and sky and representing them with landscapes in all seasons.
Dove enjoyed shapes and colors wherever he found them. The farm land included the old brickyard and drain tile factory his father had owned. He sketched the buildings and objects laying around, like ladders and woodpiles. He also drew machinery at the gravel pit near Oaks Corners and Holbrook’s bridge across the Canandaigua Outlet.
The move to the Dove Block in 1937 put Dove in downtown Geneva and close to the lake. In June of that year he wrote, “Get up early and usually go on the water here. We have a small boat. And by 8 or 9, I have almost a day’s work done.” He painted both away from and toward the shore. Patent Cereals and the new grain elevator (known to most as the Agway tower) were favorite subjects for sketching and abstractions.
Dove’s third-floor studio allowed him to occasionally work from home. To a Genevan, it is obvious some sketches were done from up high. Exchange Street II shows the tops of buildings in the foreground with the twin spires of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and the old North Presbyterian Church in the background. Sometimes he recorded scenes he saw down on the street.
In 1938 Dove and Torr were able to leave Geneva and moved back to Long Island, their home before 1933. Their time in Geneva had been extremely productive for Dove, and he had enough sketches to keep him busy for some time.
“Dove’s Geneva,” an exhibit exploring Arthur Dove’s family and the Geneva that he knew and painted, will be on display in the Geneva History Museum until the end of September. You can also pick up a rack card detailing several buildings built by the Doves and where Arthur lived.
Marks is the curator of collections at the Geneva Historical Society.