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 Jack Spicer at the opening of the 6 Gallery, 1954

Marsden Hartley
Sustained Comedy, 1939
Oil on board
28 1/8 x 22 inches
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Gift of Mervin Jules in memory of Hudson Walker


Language (White Rabbit Press, 1965). Cover design by Jack Spicer.

Marsden Hartley
Fisherman’s Last Supper, 1940–41
Oil on board
30 x 41 inches
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut


Book of Magazine Verse (White Rabbit Press, 1966). Design by Graham Mackintosh and Stan Persky.

Marsden Hartley
Adelard the Drowned, Master of the “Phantom”, circa 1938–39
Oil on board
28 x 22 inches
Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Timothy Hyman

Marsden Hartley's “Late Courage”


Towards the end of the nineteen-thirties, at sixty-one, and almost despite himself, Marsden Hartley became what he had never been before: a painter of the human figure. To fully register the poignancy of Hartley’s final phase, one needs some sense of the long road travelled, the thirty years of cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings. He’d been a painter of the Elemental, of Mountain and Sea; or else, of symbolic still-lifes dissolving into abstraction. Either way, his art had been shaped by a long-held prohibition against any overtly “personal” subject matter. But in those final six years Hartley broke all his own rules.

          Much as I admire his late “sea-windows” and landscapes, I want here to look only at the figure paintings—mostly unknown before 1980, and not easily placed within any of the standard accounts of twentieth-century painting. Encountering for the first time the frontal, very emphatic Adelard the Drowned, I experienced an immediate recognition: here was another member of that “family” of twentieth-century painters to which I’d long given my allegiance, those I’d characterise as “building on a destroyed site.” I’m thinking here, for example, of post-1918 Léger, of Beckmann from the 1920s, and most obviously, of late Guston: artists who’ve passed through the kinds of existential demolition that would be associated with abstraction and “the void,” but who eventually retrieve from the ruins their own new imagery of the human figure. Such a figuration will tend to emphasise the heaviness of the body, as a massive construction bounded by a black contour. In all these artists, a more or less conscious over-emphasis is built into the pictorial language, a physicality so exaggerated as to signal an underlying fragility. Popular, primitive or folk idioms also feed in, an inflection of comical innocence even when their paintings are nearest to prophecy.

          In suggesting this family likeness, I’m not marking out any genealogy of influence. I’ve no doubt that Hartley was familiar with the work of both Léger and Beckmann, just as it has often been suggested that Guston was nourished by Hartley’s Dogtown landscapes. But I want to point instead to a shared predicament that still seems relevant to painters of the twentyfirst century. How, after abstraction, or “against” abstraction, might one now create a meaningful human figure?

          The phrase “late courage” comes from an unpublished review, written in 1940 by Hartley’s long-term friend William Carlos Williams. He defines the new paintings as:

… full of late courage and passion, of the sort of love that’s not
easy to kill, or to understand either, for that matter.
Williams, six years younger than his difficult comrade (who had once declared to him, “I’m never intimate with anyone.”), was responding to the pathos of this large, awkward, helpless painter arriving so late at release and achievement.



I could draw such life from it – thereby become more alive myself —
therefore more attractive to myself and others – therefore more eligible
for society. I haven’t liked myself for some time now.

          Marsden Hartley, letter to Adelaide Kunz, Nov. 6th, 1935

          In New York at the beginning of 1935 Hartley had spent his fiftyeighth birthday destroying a hundred unsold works he could no longer afford to store. His life had reached its nadir. He’d lost his once-high reputation in American art, and since 1932 he’d lost also the support of Alfred Stieglitz. (He once compared their relationship to Vincent and Theo). That Autumn his unquenchable wanderlust—taking him in the previous few years to Provence and Dresden, Mexico and New England, Cleveland and Hamburg and the Bavarian Alps—now drove him northward, beyond his native Maine and into Nova Scotia, until in October he encountered the Mason family and settled in for several weeks on the remote island of East Point. This family of fishermen answered to his aspiration to a simplicity and strength he could seldom find in himself. He would recall them as “five magnificent chapters out of an amazing human book, these beautiful human beings, loving, tender, strong, courageous, dutiful, kind…” He discovered a new father in Francis Mason, a huge-headed seventy-year-old, and brothers in the two giant unmarried sons, already into their thirties.

          Returning the following September, Hartley took seriously the Masons’ suggestion that a shack of his own might be built for him on the island. But then, on the stormy night of September 19th, both the Mason boys and a young cousin drowned at sea. To help the parents and sister in their grief, Hartley stayed on, painting several of his most powerful sea-pictures, as well as drafting his long narrative prose-poem, Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Episode (The word “Tragedy” was substituted later). He finally left for New York in November, never to see them again.

          It was only in 1938, on another island (Vinalhaven, off the Maine coast), that he finally began his sequence of Mason portraits under fictive names: “Cleophas” for the father, “Adelard” for the elder son. Like much of Hartley’s best work, Adelard the Drowned, Master of the Phantom is painted on board, about 28 inches by 22. This massive moustached childman is set against the deepest cadmium red. Bear paws, pipe in breast pocket, hairy torso bursting through—but also, a pink rose tucked behind his ear. His white jacket with its brown stains is very broadly handled—but is then overlaid with the daintiest little white featherlight dabs. “Beneath all his strength,” wrote Hartley of Alty Mason, “lies a heart as tender and as beautiful as that of a young girl.” Adelard becomes the emblem of a contradiction—so super-male, so feminised.

          Like many twentieth-century painters, Hartley often hoped to give his art a social function. In his most naively mystical phase he’d conceived panels “for an arcane library;” or “intended for use as focus motives in a convalescent pavilion, mostly neurotic.” Now he dreamed of “modern icons for a wooden sea-chapel in the bitter north;” “for a seamen’s Bethel in the Far North;” “for a fishermen’s community-house.” Central to this room, alongside the five Mason portraits, would be the composition he called Fishermen’s Last Supper. As with Gauguin’s Breton Tribals, these Nova Scotia primitives are made to embody a Community of Belief in which Hartley could participate only vicariously. In the first version, the three colossal soon-to-be-drowned young men are set forever at table (two half-sized girls squeezed between). Wreaths and stars spell out the death symbolism, but the Mason dining-room (described by Hartley as “flaming robin’s egg blue”) is faithfully reconjured. In the larger, second version of 1940–41, the room is a deeper blue, the table further from us, and the whole composition given more of a tilt—suggestive of memory, or perhaps of the heave of the ocean.

TIMOTHY HYMAN is a British painter and writer. He shows at Austin/ Desmond in London, and his work is in several public collections. His monographs on Bonnard (1998) and Sienese Painting (2003) are published by Thames and Hudson, and he contributes to the Times Literary Supplement. In 2001 he curated the Tate’s Stanley Spencer retrospective and, most recently, with John Gage and Robert Hoozee, the British Vision exhibiton in Ghent (2007-8).

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