Throughout his life Tobey was deeply concerned with universal themes of man, nature, and God. In 1911, full of youthful ambition, he left Chicago for New York to become a fashion illustrator. His first exhibition, at M. Knoedler & Company in 1917, coincided with Tobey’s first introduction to the Baha’i faith, whose interrelated concepts of unity, progressive revelation, and humanity would shape Tobey’s art and life until his death. In 1922 Tobey began teaching at a progressive art school in Seattle and there studied calligraphy with a young Chinese artist, although thirteen years passed before it became integral to his art. From 1931 until 1938 Tobey taught in Devonshire, England, and in 1934, sponsored by a patron, he traveled to China and Japan. Improvising with calligraphy the following year, Tobey originated the distinctive “white writing” that marked his maturity as an artist. In the late 1950s experiments with sumi painting led Tobey to use broader strokes and patches of muted color. In 1960 Tobey settled in Basel, Switzerland, where he died in 1976.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg Modern American Realism: The Sara Roby Foundation Collection (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1987)