Hartley Responses

Response by Robert C. Williams

Sundown, Kezar Lake, July 1910
oil on panel
Marsden Hartley Mem. Collection

HartleyMarsden Hartley’s small painting of Kezar Lake at sunset in July 1910 shows rocky Speckled Mountain from the Center Lovell side of the lake. Both form and color evoke his shift from landscapes to abstraction, much as the Russian expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky was doing in the village of Murnau in southern Bavaria at this time.
“I do not sketch much these days,” he wrote his niece, Norma Berger, that July, “for I work almost wholly from the imagination—making pictures entirely from this point of view using the mountains only as backgrounds for ideas.”

The mountains of western Maine and New Hampshire had inspired Hartley’s painting since 1901, when he discovered the Kezar Lake area and Lovell after a summer at an art colony in adjacent North Bridgton. Hartley spent nearly every summer around Lovell and Stoneham until 1911, when he moved to New York, and then Paris and Berlin. A few months before he did this painting, Hartley had his first one-man show at the 291 Gallery in New York City of the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, where he met fellow painters John Marin, and Albert Ryder.

He found life in western Maine to be “rough living” with a backdrop of mysterious, bleak mountains. “And if there is a finer view anywhere in this country,” he wrote in 1906, “I should like to see it.” At times he felt overcome by “mountain madness” and a “fine insanity.” He walked five or six miles daily, went to Saturday night dances, and met a number of other gay men to whom he could relate. “This is really my home,” he wrote Norma in September 1910.

In Lovell, Hartley lived in a variety of tents, cabins, and abandoned farmhouses, ate bear and venison shot by local friends and neighbors, and got to know the portrait painter Leonard Volk and his wife, who inspired his interest in the folk art of New England.

When he sent this painting to Norma as a gift, the sunset colors and dark mountains, with thick paint textures, evoked a somber mood (Hartley may have contemplated suicide the previous year) on a beautiful lake that tourists were reaching for the first time by automobile. Hartley had come to Lovell by a “real Buffalo Bill coach and four” from the railroad station in nearby Fryeburg. But by 1910, the first automobiles were appearing around town.

Hartley remained drawn to the regional folk culture of Maine and Nova Scotia for the rest of his life. In his paintings, the powerful bodies of lobstermen, hunters, trappers and fisherman represented a North Atlantic race of muscular new beings that Hartley greatly admired. The little known period of isolation and introspection in Lovell around Kezar Lake and in view of majestic mountains marked an important beginning of his mystical love for landscape, people, and shapes of the North, as well as his contribution to modernism and abstract painting.

Response by Sarah Strong
Japanese Language and Literature

Shady Brook, Maine, 1907
oil on canvas
Collection of the Lewiston
Public Library
Gift of the Artist

When I first became acquainted with Marsden Hartley’s work, it was his poetry rather than his paintings that attracted my attention. Every other year I teach a course at Bates called “Reading the Watershed.” In it I use the concept of bio-regionalism as a way of approaching literature and I explore with students some of the stories and poems of our home watershed of the Androscoggin. Hartley’s 1940 collection of poems, Androscoggin, seemed a natural choice for the course syllabus. His poem “Lewiston is a Pleasant Place” in that collection strikes me as a particularly compelling example of the capacity of our childhood encounter with place to shape a lasting sense of a home landscape, something we carry with us into adulthood, often experiencing it with increased emotion as the years go by.

Hartley was born in Lewiston in 1877, the youngest in a family of nine children. He left Lewiston while still a sixteen-year-old youth and as an adult seemed never to have a permanent residence, moving restlessly between major cities such as New York, Paris, Berlin, Mexico City and well-known artists’ haunts such as Provincetown on Cape Cod or Aix-en-Provence in Southern France. But he always returned to Maine and to Lewiston, and he openly termed himself, especially in the last years of his life (1937-1943), as a Maine native. As a poet, Hartley portrays many scenes from Lewiston, especially in his Androscoggin collection, but as an artist he seems to have preferred to depict “native” subject matter from out of town, rendering the feel of Maine’s mountains, woods, coasts and streams.

Hartley’s Shady Brook, Maine has a particular connection with Lewiston through the fact that the artist himself gave the painting to the Lewiston Public Library (which continues to hold it today). It dates from 1907 before Hartley’s many trips abroad at a time when the artist liked to spend the summer months at Lovell near the mountains and lakes of western Maine, sometimes setting up a studio in Lewiston in the winter. The title probably is descriptive rather than a reference to the brook’s name. The artist’s name “Edmund Marsden Hartley” is a unique signature, the only time he used the three names together to sign a painting.

Hartley wrote in 1910 that he “work[ed] almost wholly from the imagination...using the mountains only as a background for ideas.” Knowing this, it is probably wise not to assume that any of his oil landscapes from this early period, including “Shady Brook” were painted “from nature,” and yet I like to think of this work that way. These are Maine woodlands, Maine waters painted here. The bare whitish tree trunk rising in the middle ground of the scene shows the distinctive annual whorls and clean vertical lines of our native white pine. In the lower left-hand corner of the painting we recognize the rounded leaves of the water lily in company with what appears to be spikes of arrow arum. Even the ripples on quiet water look familiar to anyone who has ever dipped a canoe paddle into a quiet Maine stream.

As an early work, Shady Brook, Maine is not held in as high regard aesthetically as the brighter and more vigorous Maine landscapes Hartley painted later in his career, but for me it will always be a favorite. In its darkly inviting depths I seem to share with the artist a pathway home.