This month, the Dallas Museum of Art debuts a new acquisition in the American galleries that highlights the work of Henrietta Shore (1880–1963), an artist who made a significant contribution in the development of American modernism. While she and her work were held in high regard, by the 1940s both had fallen into obscurity. Fortunately, the artist is now undergoing rediscovery, as well as a long-overdue reassessment of her impact on American art of the 20th century.
Waterfall is a remarkable product from one of the most innovative periods of Shore’s long career, when she visually interpreted the natural world into its most essential and abbreviated forms. These “semi-abstractions,” as she called them, were an attempt to convey in a symbolic way the underlying spiritual forces she sensed in nature rather than a literal transcription of the visual phenomena she observed. In Waterfall, pure line and the juxtaposition of positive and negative shapes laid down with the sheer application of pigment are the means the artist employed to render visible the dynamic power of the eternal. Color is the emotional key she wielded to unlock the visual impact of the whole.
Although she was born in Toronto, the key portion of Shore’s artistic training was acquired in the United States, most significantly under Robert Henri in New York. After several years in California, she returned to New York City in 1920 and, forsaking narrative subject matter and the loaded-brush paint application she had learned from Henri, developed the stripped-down modernist approach demonstrated in Waterfall. The inspiration for this bold composition came, most likely, from her explorations of Maine and Canada during the summer of either 1921 or 1922. When her semi-abstractions debuted in a New York gallery in January of 1923, they were widely discussed by critics, who immediately and positively compared them with works by Georgia O’Keeffe then on view at another gallery across town.
On Wednesday, August 19, learn more about the newest addition to the DMA’s American Art Galleries during our lunchtime gallery talk.
Sue Canterbury is The Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art at the DMA.