Note: See the four updates at the end of this posting. (I have also modified the title of this posting.)
The de Young Museum in San Francisco has on display a painting by Arthur Dove (oil on panel) which has the title “Sea Gull Motive (Sea Thunder or The Wave).” The museum dates the painting to 1928. Here is my photo from a visit last month:
Having doubts about how the work was hung, I went to the library today to consult Ann Lee Morgan’s scholarly study, Arthur Dove: Life and Work, with a Catalogue Raisoneé (1984). That reference work shows the painting oriented as follows, and gives its date as “c. 1926.”
I will contact the museum to find out if the curators have a justification for hanging the painting vertically.
Update: On 3/12/07, I received the following response from Timothy Anglin Burgard, Curator-in-Charge of the American Art Department, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco:
The painting is signed by Arthur Dove on the verso of the panel in the vertical orientation. In addition, the painting was correctly reproduced in its vertical orientation in all the early sources, including "Modern American Painters" (1930) and, more importantly, in "America and Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait" (1934). The horizontal orientation has no historical basis prior to 1973, when the painting reappeared.
Update #2: Timothy Burgard's explanation (above) reflects standard museum practice, but even after receiving his message, I still wondered about the painting. I was able to contact Ann Lee Morgan, who said that Dove almost never signed his paintings on the back. Her catalogue raisoneé lists the above painting as unsigned. I am not in a position to make any judgment about the signature noted by Burgard.
What continued to spark my interest was that, viewed in a vertical orientation, "Sea Gull Motive" seems anomalous in Dove's body of work. Typically, when he painted a landscape—and here I am excluding his nature-oriented abstractions—he provided an indication of a horizon line. The works tend to be grounded in that way, even when he is showing nature in a turbulent or ecstatic mode. In this context, a horizontal orientation for "Sea Gull Motive" seemed more characteristic. Of course, the case is complicated by the fact that this painting has a diagonal composition.
In any case, on 3/23/07, I went to an academic library and found evidence that persuaded me that the vertical orientation—the one shown at the de Young—is correct. One of the books mentioned by curator Burgard, which shows the painting vertically, is Modern American Painters (1930), written by the art dealer Samuel M. Kootz. I found that Dove references Kootz's book in a letter to his dealer Alfred Stieglitz, the noted photographer. Stieglitz had asked Dove to write something in response to the section of Kootz's book that deals with Georgia O'Keeffe. It is clear from Dove's letter that he has read Kootz's book: he refers to specific statements by Kootz that can be found in the book. It is also clear that he approved of the book. He declared, “It would take quite a man to do a better book.” Surely he had seen the reproduction of his painting in the book, and he voices no complaint. To me this is conclusive.
Dove's letter, circumstantially dated 4 December 1930, can be found in the selected correspondence between Stieglitz and Dove, a work by (again) Ann Lee Morgan, entitled Dear Stieglitz, Dear Dove (1988, page 201).
Update #3: I received a delayed reply from Barbara Haskell, author of the catalogue for the retrospective of Dove's work that she organized under the sponsorhip of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1974. In an email response, she says, “When I did the show, the owner of the painting (and, as I remember, Dove’s son), said that Dove showed it both ways. I prefer it horizontally—I think it relates far more to Dove’s other work and to his typical motifs.” So perhaps either orientation is historically correct.
Update #4: A month ago, I received a message from Ann Lee Morgan stating that Dove was a right-handed painter. I returned to the de Young to see if the brushstrokes in this painting could provide a clue about its proper orientation. During my examination, there was a moment when I envisioned a wacky headline: “Man Injures Neck While Studying Arthur Dove Painting.” This is a very brushy painting with more than one layer of strokes, which go in a variety of directions. Overall, though, it appeared to me that the work had been painted mostly while it was vertical. There are some strokes that curve in a way that would be awkward indeed if the painting had been horizontal. And there were strokes that appeared to move from top to bottom along the veritical axis, which are implausible as right-to-left strokes in a horizontal canvas. I doubt, however, that the painting was kept vertical for its entire execution. The white edges against the dark areas appear to be painted at right angles to the edges, pulling away from the edges. These would have been easier to do if the painting were placed horizontally (or even flipped vertically). It's possible that Dove noticed, when he turned the painting around, that it worked in more than one orientation. See the comment above.