24 November 2023

Helen Torr: Little Boat

Where is the lambent light Long Island is fabled for? In Helen Torr's Houses on a Boat the sky  lowers over turbulent waters, possibly a reflection of the artist's own uncertain future.  Painted shortly before the catastrophic stock market crash that begat the Great Depression, five houses huddle precariously on a  boat that can barely contain them. Seeing them as a metaphor is irresistible; however, I should add that Torr had a predilection for dark colors in the 1920s so tread carefully around this metaphor.

Helen Torr (1886-1967), a student of William Merritt Chase, married  Arthur Dove who was friends with Georgia O'Keeffe. When Torr,  whose nickname was 'Red',  met Dove, both were married to others. But they soon  left their respective spouses and, in 1924, set up home on a houseboat off the north shore of Long Island at Halesite. Throughout their life together, the couple suffered extreme financial hardships, basically living from hand to mouth. 

Torr exhibited her work only twice, once at Alfred Stieglitz's American Place Gallery in 1933.  Torr stopped painting after Dove died in 1946.  Her wish to have her paintings destroyed after her death was ignored by her sister.

Image - Helen Torr - Houses on a Boat, 1929, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.


Tania said...

Very moving, these houses at sea, so symbolic too. The shadow in the water, a whale? There is a little light to keep hope.

Jane A Librizzi said...

Tania, yes, this picture has a haunting effect. I hadn't thought about what that object at the lower left of the canvas might be. God guess on your part. These days folks on Long Island worry about hungry sharks!