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Swashbuckling around the salt water: Dove and Torr’s home and studio

May 24, 2023


Karli Wurzelbacher, Curator, The Heckscher Museum of Art

Part of  these categories:: Exhibitions

Modern artists Arthur Dove (1880–1946) and Helen Torr (1886–1967) lived and worked together in unusual places, including a sailboat and a former roller rink. The Heckscher Museum of Art has preserved their final house, known as the Dove/Torr Cottage, and is reactivating the site for the public. Perched on the bank of a tidal inlet that opens onto the Long Island Sound, the 500-square-foot structure at 30 Centershore Road in Centerport, New York, was originally a post office and general store. In 1938, Dove and Torr made it their home, immersing themselves in nature, exploring new directions in their art, and caring for each other during serious illnesses. Torr declared, “We feel this is the loveliest situation we have ever had.” Dove agreed, “I love this swashbuckling around the salt water. . . . Everyone seems quite delighted with this place. It is beautiful.”

Two black-and-white photos: On the left, a middle-aged White man and White woman stand on a porch; on the right, a small, clapboard building sits under trees at the edge of the water.

[Left] Arthur Dove and Helen Torr, Ketewomoke Yacht Club, Halesite, Huntington Harbor, n.d.; [Right] The Dove/Torr Cottage, c. 1938. Estate of Arthur Dove

Dove and Torr began living together in 1922 and married in 1932. They spent most of their first decade living on a sailboat docked in Long Island Sound’s Huntington Harbor. Attuned to the weather and surrounded by water, Dove and Torr each responded to nature in their abstract paintings and landscapes. Torr created still-life paintings of feathers and driftwood, and Dove made collages from materials including sand and shells. Amid the Great Depression, the couple moved to Dove’s hometown of Geneva, New York, to sort out his mother’s estate following her death. In 1937–38, they lived and worked there on the top floor of a commercial building that had previously been an auditorium, a roller-skating rink, and a dance hall.

A painting of rippling waves on the ocean and two waving flags mounted underwater under a cloudy sky.

Helen Torr (American, 1886–1967), Oyster Stakes, 1929. Oil on paperboard, 18 x 24 in. The Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY, Gift of Mrs. Mary Rehm, 1971.5a

By 1938, Dove and Torr were eager to return to Long Island. They purchased the Cottage, which would be their final home, for $980. Over the next decade, Dove suffered from heart attacks and liver disease. Ill and at times unable to leave his home, he created some of his most acclaimed work, including the Carter’s Thunder Shower and a series of small experimental watercolors featured in the exhibition Arthur Dove: Miniature Laboratories. Torr ceased painting but continued to draw during this period. Her career was stymied in part by the barriers that female artists faced, as well as the time she devoted to caring for Dove and supporting his work. As she expressed in a letter to him, “Moods, conditions, almost everything pertaining to us, change so fast during degrees of illness and degrees of convalescence, that there is no ‘constant’ or absolute.” Having experienced the coronavirus pandemic, many of us may be able to relate to these circumstances.

A graphite drawing of a duck searching for food on the ground.

Helen Torr (American, 1886–1967), Duck, n.d. Pencil on paper, 4-1/16 x 5-11/16 in. The Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY, Gift of the Estate of Helen Torr, DT1998.1.34

A graphite drawing of stylized trees on a hill reflected in the water and starburst shapes representing the light of fireflies.

Helen Torr (American, 1886–1967), Fire Flies, n.d. Pencil on paper, 9-3/4 x 7-7/8 in. The Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY, Gift of the Estate of Helen Torr, DT1998.1.32

The story of Dove and Torr’s fruitful and challenging years at the Cottage features in related exhibitions taking place in 2023–24 at the Carter and The Heckscher Museum. This is also a time of renewal at the Dove/Torr Cottage, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of the Historic Artists Homes and Studios (HAHS) program of the National Trust. The Cottage is open by appointment and hosts an annual plein-air painting event. Additionally, thanks to a grant from HAHS, the site will inspire a public art installation in the form of a soundwalk, which will be accessible in-person and online beginning this fall. Check it out the next time you are in the mood to swashbuckle around the salt water!

View of a large pond framed by tree branches.

View of Titus Mill Pond from the Dove/Torr Cottage, June 23, 2022. Photo by Maya Argov