This Helen Torr work is an abstract composition showing a balance of rhythm and control in muted shades of maroons, olives, and grays

Meet American Modernist Helen Torr

By Beth Hamilton

Helen Torr was an important early American modernist painter, although her more famous husband, Arthur Dove, has overshadowed her reputation. During her lifetime, her work was exhibited only twice: a 1927 group show organized by Georgia O’Keeffe at the Opportunity Gallery and in 1933 at Alfred Stieglitz’s An American Place gallery. Nevertheless, her works are among the earliest examples of abstraction and merit recognition alongside paintings by the Stieglitz group.

Affectionately called “Reds” for her lush hair color, Torr was born in 1886 in Philadelphia. From 1902 to 1905, she studied drawing at Drexel University and received honorable mention for her work. In 1905, she enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art where she took instruction from Thomas Anshutz and William Merritt Chase. Torr married the illustrator Clive Weed in 1913 and the couple lived in Philadelphia and New York. Torr likely met Dove through Weed around 1919, as the two men were both working as illustrators at the time. Torr and Dove developed a meaningful bond that was not present in either of their marriages. The two eventually left their spouses to form a union together in life and in art.

Beginning in 1924, the couple lived on their yawl, the Mona, moored in Halesite, New York. The idyllic coastal town on the North Shore of Long Island provided them with ample inspiration for the paintings made during the nine years of their residence. Torr was already a skilled draftsman, and she began painting at this time through the influence of her husband. At times, as is common in a circle of artists, her work is reminiscent of Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Burchfield, and Dove. Like these artists, Torr often used actual elements of landscape and objects as a point of departure for her semi-abstract paintings of the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1933, Torr and Dove relocated to Geneva, New York, where Dove had spent his childhood. Dove inherited his father’s farm, but the venture to upstate New York proved to be unsuccessful for the couple. They returned to Long Island in 1938 where they were met with further hardships. Dove suffered a heart attack in 1939 and lived the remaining years of his life in poor health. Torr put her own painting aside to care for her ailing husband who died in 1946. She did not resume painting after his death.

Impromptu was painted in 1929 during Torr’s prolific period in Halesite. The abstract composition shows a balance of rhythm and control in muted shades of maroons, olives, and grays. A grid of colored squares and other patterned motifs are contained within the flat circles and the overlapping circular forms. Dove was a proponent of Torr’s work, and praised her paintings in a letter to Stieglitz in 1929. Impromptu was exhibited in 1933 alongside Dove’s work at Stieglitz’s An American Place gallery.

Impromptu is now in the collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Cover image: Helen Torr, American, 1886-1967. Impromptu, 1929. Oil on canvas board. 9 1/2 x 15 5/8 inches. Signed on the verso.