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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Martha Graham

Photo: Elizabeth Mann

Martha Graham


Mark Tobey

born Centerville, Wisconsin, 1890; died Basel, Switzerland, 1976

Martha Graham’s solo performance of her Poems of 1917, which she choreographed and danced to music by Leo Ornstein, is considered one of her most dramatic pieces of work. An anti-war statement, the ballet was, the New York Times said, “highly provocative in conception . . . whether [the movements] are to be classified as dancing or not.” The fact that Tobey himself identified the portrait as being inspired by Graham’s “Song Behind the Lines” in 1928 suggests that he must have been present for the ballet’s premier at New York’s Little Theater on April 22, 1928—“Song Behind the Lines” was one segment of Poems of 1917, which was unveiled in Graham’s final recital of that season.

It is unclear if Tobey knew Graham when he painted her on this memorable occasion—Tobey was acquainted with Graham’s sister, who taught modern dance at the Cornish School in Seattle when Tobey taught there, but Martha Graham did not join the Cornish faculty until after this portrait was painted. But at this time, 1928, Tobey was well-known in New York music and theater circles for his portraits and caricatures of the well-known personalities. Graham would have readily sat for Tobey, one would guess, given his connection to her sister, his growing reputation in New York, and their modernist affinities.

In its bold shorthand, expressionistic style, it is unlike any of the other early Tobey portraits in the Seattle Art Museum collection. It documents the simpatico relationship of Tobey and Martha Graham, an iconic figure in modern art, and represents Tobey’s response in the moment to a ballet that proved to be one of Graham’s most unforgettable, politically charged modern dance statements.

Oil on canvas mounted to composite board
27 x 20 in. (68.6 x 50.8 cm)
Gift of Kendrick A. Schlatter
Provenance: The artist; sold to his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur L. Dahl, Pebble Beach, California, after November 1959; consigned to [M. Knoedler and Co., Inc, New York] by April 1976; consigned to [Foster/White Gallery, Seattle], by July 1978; consigned to [Mirage Editions Gallery, Santa Monica, California] by June 1980; sold to Kendrick A. Schlatter, Los Angeles, June 18, 1980
Photo: Elizabeth Mann
Not currently on view


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Seattle Art Museum, Mark Tobey: A Retrospective Exhibition from Northwest Collections, September 11-November 1, 1959. Cat. no. 15 (as Martha Graham in Dance Behind the Lines [sic; the ballet was Poems of 1917]; lent by the artist).

New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Mark Tobey, April 10-May 1, 1976. Text by John Ashbery. Cat. no. 2, p. 64, reproduced p. 11 (as Portrait of Martha Graham).

Seattle, Foster/White Gallery, July-August, 1978, checklist no. 52, not reproduced (as Portrait of Martha Graham; for sale).

Santa Monica, California, Mirage Editions Gallery, Mark Tobey, Galen Garwood, June 1980 (as Portrait of Martha Graham, for sale).
Published ReferencesTarzan, Delores. “’New’ Tobey Works on View in Shows which Pay Tribute,” Seattle Times, July 14, 1978: p. 65.

Dahl, Arthur L., et al. Mark Tobey: Art and Belief (Oxford, England: George Ronald, 1984). Plate 2, p. 3.

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

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