The Return of the “Painter From Maine”: Marsden Hartley’s Maine

Hartley’s new exhibit in the Colby College Museum depicts scenes of Maine. Above is the center of the exhibit and behind are various landscapes by the painter himself.

As the self-proclaimed “Painter From Maine”, Marsden Hartley’s new exhibit at the Colby College Museum of Art delivers a complex set of emotions and images pertaining to Maine. Inspired by transcendentalist thinkers such as Emerson and Thoreau, Hartley creates a narrative about his home state that is equal parts beautiful and dark. His complicated relationship with Maine is laid out between two floors of the Museum’s Upper and Lower Jette Galleries, starting with landscape imagery and moving on to various people and faces from his  home state.

The Museum does a good job of laying out the biography of Hartley (1877-1943), using a large map on the left-most wall of the upper gallery, charting his time in different locations around Maine. An American painter and poet, Hartley was born in Lewiston in 1877, moving up and around the state of Maine and the rest of the country to cities such as New York and Cleveland. After making several trips to Europe to paint, Hartley returned to Ogunquit, a small beach town on Maine’s southern coast in the summer of 1917. There he attended the Summer School of Graphic Art, a popular spot for emerging artists. It was also there that he gained interest in American Folk art and subsequently where his Maine imagery and emerging style took off.

The majority of Hartley’s style can be described as Post-Impressionist. Post-Impressionist work describes a range of art made largely in response to the Impressionist movement. This movement began in the 1880’s and ran through 1914. Optical effects of color and structure are the key aesthetic qualities of the Post-Impressionist movement, as well as the abstract form. Artists’ work relies heavily on color and shape to create meaning, rather than a direct reflection of reality and the world around them.

One piece that clearly exemplifies this style is Hartley’s “Carnival of Autumn,” from 1908. is rich and colorful interpretation of a hillside displays characteristic marks of Post-Impressionist work such as thickly applied paint and clear indication of brushstroke, as well as clumps of vibrant color, outlining a somewhat abstracted reality. The colors of blue, white and purple construct a cool, crisp atmosphere, evident in many other paintings in the collection. Though of a Maine landscape, this painting and others like it were said to have been inspired by Hartley’s travels to the French countryside, mainly Aix-en-Provence, where Post-Impressionism was in full swing. This piece is located in the Upper Jette Gallery, situated in a larger context of landscape art. Each piece is a similar, yet unique view of Maine scenery. This series of landscape paintings also reflect another interest of Hartley’s – an interest in traditional crafts, especially weaving. This, coupled with his growing interest in folk art, makes for a rich and haptic quality to his work.

Moving onto the bottom floor of the exhibit, the viewer is overtaken by multiple images of Mount Katahdin, the tallest peak in the state of Maine. Hartley took an eight-day trip to Mount Katahdin in 1939 to create sketches that would later be turned into painting for this series. These images mark his return to nature, honoring the stunning beauty of Katahdin’s peak, as well as the lakes surrounding it. Hartley’s appreciation of this land mass takes up the majority of his later work done in Maine.

Though landscape paintings dominate the first half of this exhibit, it would be remiss to leave out Hartley’s work in portraiture. Painted in the 1930’s and 40’s, these works display a different view of Hartley’s Maine, focusing closely on the complex personalities of Maine’s inhabitants. Most of these works depict single, stoic men with strong, dark attributes. These paintings can be seen as dark and moody, a reflection of Hartley’s attitude about returning to Maine at the time. His relationship with his home state became increasingly more complicated as he returned with a damaged reputation and depleted funds. Increasingly seen as an outsider, Hartley channeled this energy into a new style of work – lobster fisherman, hunters and lumberjacks become his subjects – a quintessential albeit hypermasculine portrayal of Maine.

A work that displays this idea clearly is “Knotting Rope,” from 1939-40. This dramatic work consists only of shades of black, tan, and white, and shows manual excursion in line with the athletic masculine aesthetic of the rest of the series. Along with his landscapes, these portraits create a vivid view of Hartley’s Maine, spanning over more than 40 years.

The real importance of the exhibit though, lies in the significance of the “Painter From Maine” returning to Maine. Coming this summer from The MET Breuer in Manhattan, this is the first time that Hartley’s full breadth of work on Maine has been shown in his native state. The College’s exhibit allows for a unique viewing experience, especially for local community members. Through these paintings, the viewer gets to see a variety of ideas and images and thus are allowed to compare them to their own representations and interpretations of their state. Hartley puts forth the complexity and beauty of Maine for his audience, a place where we all can find commonality in that we are lucky to call it home, even if only for four years.

Additionally, this exhibit as a whole along with its location in Maine and at the Colby College Museum of Art suggests a potential for exploring the familiar by looking at many different sides of something – contradictions and all – and creating something entirely new.

Marsden Hartley’s Maine is now on view at the Colby College Museum of Art through November 12, 2017.

This is the Acknowledgement from the Museum’s website: “The exhibition is made possible by the Henry Luce Foundation, Bank of America, Betsy Cohen and Edward Cohen/ Aretê Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Everett P. and Florence H. Turner Exhibition Fund.

A grant from the Wyeth Foundation for American Art has supported the Colby College Museum of Art’s scholarly contributions to the exhibition catalogue published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Marsden Hartley’s Maine is organized by the Colby College Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

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