On the morning of Sept. 1, the internationally renowned master pastel artist and painter, Irving Petlin, died at his beloved Martha’s Vineyard summer home of many decades. Irving had battled cancer and other ailments for several years, and when the end grew near he chose to return from his apartment in Paris to the Vineyard to die among friends and family, and in the landscape he treasured.

It was on the Chilmark property, Wayside Farm, that Irving began or completed many of his best-known later works, including a series of responses to the writings of Edmond Jabès, Primo Levi, Bruno Schulz and W.G. Sebald, Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, and the work of the poet Michael Palmer, who along with his wife Cathy and daughter Sarah, shared the property.

The Vineyard was for Irving, in the words of his longtime friend, the late American poet Robert Duncan, “a place of first permission,” that is a trigger for so much of his visual imagery and artistic imagination. There echoes of the past and intimations of possible futures would meet, and the deeply personal and the political would enter into resonant dialogue. There too he would relax among cherished local friends, as well as those from around the United States and Europe. Over drinks with this company, he would meticulously grill a perfect loin of tuna, supplied inevitably by the Larsens in Menemsha. He would never fail to note proudly that “Betsy and Christine (Larsen) set this aside for me.”

Yet the relaxed pastoralism of the Vineyard landscape and waters never released him from his lifelong obligation to social and political responsibilities, as he addressed the injustices of the present, in the United States and elsewhere, along with the tragic history of the Holocaust, which he approached from many different angles, in an effort to understand and depict the incomprehensible and the unrepresentable. He was particularly attuned to the sufferings of those displaced by the forces of history and abuses of power, and reacted fiercely against the excesses of contemporary hypernationalism and bigotry. In fact, the evident peacefulness of the Vineyard paradoxically enabled a form of impassioned perspective regarding injustice and suffering.

At the same time, his Vineyard art would often celebrate the loving and privileged intimacy of family life and its rituals. Thus domestic immediacy and historical reflection would intertwine in a manner unique to Irving’s work, creating a multi-layered field for the willing viewer to immerse herself in and consider. Such work was not meant for everybody, certainly not for the casual observer for whom art is nothing more than simple decoration or placid and passive realism. Irving’s work also interrogated the history of art itself, its efforts to arrive at those truths of the inner and outer eye that reaffirm art’s singular truth content.

He was always acutely aware that such art, even when raw and confrontational as his could be, should never abandon the aesthetic dimension, but should instead employ it as a means for communication, and for revelation of things as they are and things as they might be. Particularly on the Vineyard, spurred by its changing and intriguingly nuanced light, Irving focused on the art of pastel, where touch and shading can convey layers of meaning and multiple, subtle dimensions of being. He was widely considered one of the world’s great masters of this medium.

Even as he raged against the atrocities of our time, and the murderously unjust wars he witnessed, such as in Vietnam and Iraq, he never forgot the hope that artistic activity embodied. Art for him was not simply a means of representation, but a quest for that which lies beneath, that which is too easily forgotten, that which must be made visible, and that which must be resisted.

During his final weeks, Irving was attended to by Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard with extraordinary skill and kindness. The family’s gratitude to them is beyond words. During those same weeks, even while enduring inevitable, intermittent physical discomfort, Irving exhibited a peacefulness and alert and loving attention to others. Son Gabriel brought Irving’s grandchildren to the Island for a stay, which gave Irving deep joy. His daughter Alessandra and wife Sarah were constant, active presences. Visitors arrived from New York and elsewhere, as well as from the immediate neighborhood, to bid farewell amidst an atmosphere of profound affection. Memories and laughter were shared.