Strength and mastery in figures that evoke much
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) was a native of Maine who returned to live there intermittently throughout his career. Of a restless nature, Hartley lived in many parts of Europe and North America. He would suffer phases of craving for the stimulation of urban social contact and of longing for reacquaintance with nature. The satisfaction of either need would arouse the other, though it was usually what he saw as the needs of his art that actually prompted him to move.
During his years in Europe, Hartley strove to adapt the aesthetics of Cezanne , of Picasso, of Kandinsky and Leger, to his own vision. The results were often striking paintings of a robustness rare in work so openly derivative. His many experiments with pictorial style and painting technique resulted in an extraordinary ability to put a picture together. Mature works like the one shown here have an incomparable strength of composition and energy of technique.
Some of Hartley's landscape views were painted from memory, but ''Hurricane Island, Vinalhaven, Maine'' grew out of direct observation. This painting is a good example of the way Hartley could make the abstract strength of a picture correspond to the primal presence of its subject matter without worrying about accuracy of descriptive detail.
''Hurricane Island'' sees nature as the vast setting of immense forms and forces. Relations of space and scale have been stylized here so that the foreground rocks loom like mountains, while the middle ground pine trees diminish in size much faster than they recede in depth. Up above, a single swollen cloud bears down on the scene like an en- croaching planet. It makes us remember the force of grav- ity, which actual clouds tend to make us forget. Parallels in color and brushwork recall that cloud and ocean are a com- mon element.
Most of Hartley's late paintings of nature are free of human figures, and this picture at first appears to be no exception. But if you look at this work for a while, even in a black and white photograph, you will see the central group of rocks take on an anthropomorphic aspect. Their forms merge into a single entity, the half-submerged back and arm of a massive stooped male figure, a colossus rising from the inlet. Could Hartley have intended us to see his image in this way? The answer is not clear, but several late portraits offer a clue.
The broad physique suggested by the rocks here appears explicitly in the artist's portraits from memory of the two drowned sons of a family of fishermen whom he had befriended in Nova Scotia. We may well wonder whether Hartley consciously saw in the majesty of this landscape's forms a fresh embodiment of his lost friends' strength of spirit.