Mark Tobey’s Time with Seattle


In January 1928 the Seattle newspapers had great fun describing the hanging of a Mark Tobey painting – upside-down.  Seattle claimed Tobey, but the artist claimed the world – at least Europe – as his spiritual home.

Born in 1890, Mark George Tobey was the youngest of four children from a Wisconsin small-town family.  His upper Mississippi, horse-drawn-carriage youth gave way to a teenager’s life in the fast-paced streets of Chicago.

Throughout his artistic growth – reaching a peak in his early 50s – Tobey was influenced by contemporary artists such as Paul Klee, Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, and several Asian painters, alongside the meditations of Zen.  Perhaps the most powerful influence came with his conversion to the Bahai religion.  Tobey would eventually be claimed by the Bahai faithful as a sort of artist-in-eternal-residence.  Tobey acknowledged his strong belief in the principles of that faith, claiming that Bahai “found him.”

Tobey was the product of a nation emerging from the Great War, 1914-1918.  President Woodrow Wilson, the idealist, was pressing hard for U.S. Senate approval of the League of Nations.  Bahai preached that the unity of mankind is inevitable and that world citizenship and world civilization signaled humanity’s coming of age.  This idealization and mystical approach included the respect of all religions and their prophets — different routes to the same godly end.  Tobey was comfortable with that view of a troubled world, and his new-found spiritual sense and studies began to be reflected in his art.

Besides being artistically gifted, Mark Tobey had the curiosity of a modern Renaissance man fueled by inordinate physical energy.  The goateed, wiry artist became an amateur pianist and composer, wrote prose and poetry, and enjoyed an insatiable appetite for film, science, concerts, travel, and the theater.  As abstraction crept into Tobey’s work he infused it with the principles of music.  It was said that as he did brush work on canvas he occasionally broke into a jig.

In 1922, Tobey and a friend took a cross-country rail trip to Seattle.  They had only enough money for two coach tickets and a bag of oranges.  At Seattle’s Cornish School he was paid $2 to teach an art class.  Tobey supplemented his thin income by painting wooden parrots which he sold for 25 cents each.  One wonders what one of those parrots would bring today.

The Seattle years saw Tobey “discover” cubism, learn about Chinese brushwork, and study Japanese color prints.  Along with Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, and Guy Anderson, Mark Tobey helped found what would be called the Northwest School of Art.  In Seattle Tobey sketched and painted memorable scenes of the Pike Place Market.  The first examples of his famous “white writing” style of painting were done on the shores of Puget Sound.

By the mid-’50s with his artistic reputation secure, Tobey left Seattle.  He spent time in Asia, New York, and Paris. In 1960 he settled in Basel, Switzerland, his last home, where he died in 1976.  In 1961, 300 of his paintings were displayed at the Louvre in Paris.  

Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.


  1. Some years ago, in the 1980s, a bunch of us started a pub beneath the Alexis Hotel at First and Madison, wanting to pay tribute to Mark Tobey for his hanging out on First Avenue and the Market. Only later someone chided us for having alcohol at the Mark Tobey Pub, since the honored painter’s Bahai belief scorned booze. The Mark Tobey made money the first month and then lost money every subsequent month, curing me of the restaurant business. Our architect was Gordon Walker, and we painted the walls “nicotine white,” in honor of all the smoke-stained pubs in England.

  2. Tobey and Kenneth Callahan were very close, and Callahan named his son Brian Tobey Callahan. When we were in school he called himself Brian but later chose to go by Tobey. Like his father and Mark Tobey he loved nature, graduating from the UW and Yale with degrees in forestry. After teaching biology in Seattle schools for several years he and his family moved to Denham, a remote island off of Johnstone Strait north of Vancouver and became a Canadian citizen. He died suddenly in 2013 shortly after publishing a book Margaret Callahan: Mother of Northwest Art honoring his mother. I think Mark Tobey would have been honored too.

    Thanks, Junius

  3. Thanks for the article, Junius.
    Tobey is a revered local artist. That being said, he is IMHO, overrated, depressing, dark, and requires too much guidance toward his nuance to be pleasing.
    As a collector (sorta), i would only, if I could afford, put a Tobey, in the brightest, most sunlit wall, that i only had to gaze upon occasionally.
    That’s art, ain’t it?
    Now do the Skagit artists… please.

  4. Tobey played a key political role in Seattle, even though I was told his faith would not permit such a thing.

    He was key to 11th hour fund-raising for the 1971 Initiative campaign to save the Pike Place Market – a place where he found much inspiration.

    Vic Steinbrueck arranged for Tobey, then living in Switzerland, to donate an ensemble of his work as collateral to immediately get cash from an Angel banker. No surprise, local TV stations demanded up-front payment to air political ads. I quickly created the commercial and the “buy,” as I was then taking a break from broadcast journalism. The opposition was shocked when the grass roots Market savers could “get up on TV.”

    The production costs were donated: my time, the cinematography of Al Stenson, and the grandiose voice-over talent of actor John Gilbert. Steinbrueck insisted I accept a fee for my work “or you won’t take this seriously:” The payment I chose was a signed Tobey lithograph of a serene human figure – more Bahá’i than “White Writing” – that I continue to enjoy to this day.

    • As former faculty & art historian our group is engaged in recent effort to save the beautiful Spanish Revival building, Nellie Cornish’s home and mythic Cornish School on Capitol Hill –now for sale for $13,000,000-It has some protecttions but we working on more. Also we hope a new owner in best case scenario- would commit that it continues on as an arts, cultural educational institution -but that is unknown at this point. I am searching for archival information about possible Tobey mural painted over -lost to time and eyes on a wall in that building. Any leads appreciated


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