In their experiments with abstraction, many twentieth-century painters sought to express the visual equivalent of music in their compositions. In vastly differing styles, Wassily Kandinsky, Francis Picabia, Stuart Davis [1983.120], Aaron Douglas [2011.1791], Georgia O’Keeffe, and Marsden...
In their experiments with abstraction, many twentieth-century painters sought to express the visual equivalent of music in their compositions. In vastly differing styles, Wassily Kandinsky, Francis Picabia, Stuart Davis [1983.120], Aaron Douglas [2011.1791], Georgia O’Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley, among others, all worked with musical motifs. Arthur Garfield Dove was also inspired by music over the course of his career and made more than a dozen compositions on the theme: the first, called simply Music (location unknown), in 1913 and the last, Primitive Music (The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), in 1943. In 1927, Dove created six paintings based on popular contemporary American jazz by composers such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. Five of them are tied to specific tunes and take their titles from the pieces themselves. Dove first produced two works related to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (both 1927, private collections), and then, for the third and final painting, he turned to another Gershwin composition, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” Gershwin had written “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” for the 1922 version of George White’s Scandals, an annual Broadway revue similar to the Ziegfield Follies. The song combined a lively, syncopated beat with optimistic lyrics: “I’ll build a stairway to Paradise / With a new step ev’ry day! / I’m gonna get there at any price; / Stand aside, I’m on my way!” The Paul Whiteman Orchestra played it on Broadway, and they recorded it as an instrumental the same year. Dove listened to this recording repeatedly as he painted, attempting to directly translate the music into color and shapes.  The overall effect of the shimmering surface and jaunty line Dove created in George Gershwin—I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise successfully captures the energetic spirit of the music. The process was not easy, however, and Dove (who worked in many media throughout his career) struggled to find the right approach. According to the diaries kept by his wife, Helen Torr [1998.15], he began by April 6, 1927, in pastel, but on April 11 he “did [it] entirely over in oils.”  There is no evidence of pastel in the Museum’s painting; Dove must have discarded his initial attempt altogether and started over on a fresh support. He may have felt that the chalky pastel lacked the necessary texture to express the bouncy music in visual terms. In the final composition he employed ink, metallic paint, and oil, in a palette dominated by silver with accents of black, blue, and red. He used the short strokes and squiggles of black ink as the framework for the colors, in some places mixing the blue and red into the silver. Dove gave George Gershwin—I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise to Edward Alden Jewell, an art critic for the New York Times. Jewell had championed the artist’s work, though admitting that his abstract approach was difficult to grasp. Dove’s painting was first exhibited in December 1927 at Alfred Stieglitz’s Intimate Gallery; in his review of the show, Jewell wrote: “Yet even one who does not understand is caught now and then with an inexplicable and fugitive thrill before some orchestration of color and form.”  Notes 1. Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., and Carol Troyen, The Lane Collection: 20th-Century Paintings in the American Tradition (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1983), 24. 2. Arthur and Helen Torr Dove Papers, 1905–1974, series 3: Writings. Diaries 1927–1945, box 2, folder 1, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 3. E. A. Jewell, “Arthur Dove’s New Work,” New York Times, December 18, 1927, section 9, 12. Karen E. Quinn
Reverse: GEORGE GERSHWIN/I'LL BUILD a Stairway TO PARADISE/April 1927 PA.[ ]/Dove/15 x 20
1927, the artist; gift of the artist to Edward Alden Jewell, New York. By 1957, with the Downtown Gallery, New York; 1957, sold by the Downtown Gallery to William H. Lane Foundation; 1990, gift of the William H. Lane Foundation to the MFA. (Accession Date: September 18, 1990)
Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation
© Estate of Arthur G. Dove