Ds Scholarship

Marsden Hartley painting of ‘whereabouts unknown’ located in Portland bank vault

For years, scholars have wondered where a 1936 painting by modernist Marsden Hartley was located and where the original was in Maine.

They knew the painting existed, because a black and white photo was reproduced in a catalog from the Hartley Gallery in Nova Scotia in 1987. The painting itself, an elegy for Canadian friends who drowned in the Atlantic hurricane, was not in the gallery, but was described in the catalog as belonging To a collector from Maine. Before that, it was shown only twice, in New York at the American Place Gallery immediately after its creation in 1936 and in Portland in 1980 at the Barridoff Galleries, where it was later sold into a private collection.

The painting resurfaced this summer in the vault of the Key Bank in downtown Portland, where an art collector many years ago took it for safekeeping for fear of it being stolen from his Windham home. The collector recently passed away, and his attorney contacted Portland art historian Jill Scott, who is working with the Bates College Museum of Art to create a comprehensive online catalog of all known Hartley paintings and works on paper, the Marsden Hartley Legacy Project.

The work of nearly all other major artists of Hartley’s stature has been fully documented, with each painting or work documented on paper with date of creation, exhibition, ownership and other vital details, and oftentimes commentaries as well. But that didn’t happen to Hartley, until Bates took over when he received nearly $200,000 from the Horowitz Art Foundation to start the project. The museum recently won a $100,000 grant from the New York-based Vilcek Foundation to finish it.

“Hartley is increasingly recognized as one of the most important American modernists of the twentieth century,” said museum director Dan Mills. He is also one of the few of his generation and stature who does not have this type of comprehensive scholarship available. It’s a huge project, and we’re very fortunate to have one of the outstanding Hartley Scholars living in Maine who is already very committed to the Hartley and Hartley Scholarship.”

1942 portrait of Marsden Hartley. Alfredo Valenti

A native of Lewiston, Hartley was born in 1877. The Bates Museum is home to the Hartley Memorial Collection, given by the artist’s heirs and which includes the largest collection of Hartley’s drawings, as well as the artist’s painting, brushes, easel and other contents from his last home and studio in Korea on the lower east coast, Drawing manuals and early oil paintings. Over the years, Bates has acquired other Hartley paintings to add to his holdings. He died at Ellsworth in 1943, having traveled the world extensively as a touring painter, and had always considered himself a “Maine painter”.

Scott, who lives in Portland and has devoted much of her career to Hartley scholarship, described the discovery of the 1936 painting as a “eureka moment” in her research because it represented something new. The collector, whose family asked Scott not to be named, sure knows what he has and cares enough about the painting to protect it by putting it in a bank vault—and bequeathing it to a major New England art museum, which Scott refused. Name, where he will reside in the future. But it was a moment of discovery for Scott and other Hartley scholars, who had only heard of this work but had never seen. It has not been shown in public for more than 40 years, moved to a private collection – and then in a basement.

As part of her research on the old project, Scott attempted to contact the collector himself, by phone and message, but did not receive a response. She deemed this a failed attempt to find the painting or its owner, and classified the painting’s whereabouts as unknown. It may have been still in the private collection, passed as a gift or sold – or, as its owner feared, it was stolen in a burglary.

But then, in late spring or early summer, Scott heard from a real estate attorney, who told her that her letter inquiring about the painting had already been received—three days after the collector’s death. In her grief, the widow of the collector passed the letter to the lawyer.

In August, Scott was finally able to see the painting in person in the bank vault.

“It took two months, but sure enough I walked into Key Bank in downtown Portland and in the great basement and there was this painting I had never seen in color before and not seen in person,” she said. Filming the painting front and back, she spent time absorbing, jotting, and documenting the details.

Scott said it is among Hartley’s many memorials to deceased friends, a theme he began with his paintings of The German Officer in 1914. She described it as a “stylized, symbolic work.” The oil painting, which is 17 inches long and 12 inches wide, features a gold cup with a heart and a red cross, with two cloud-like shapes, or white roses.

Portland art historian Jill Scott is leading the project of cataloging all of Marsden Hartley’s artwork for the Bates College Museum of Art. photo courtesy

When she examined the back of the painting, she saw that it had had many names over the years. She said that one of her several alternative nicknames, in French, was “Ciboire avec Ostie” or “Cup with Host,” referring to the Eucharist. They were also known as “The Friend in the Storm”, and more recently as “The Roses for Fishermen Lost at Sea”. But Hartley called the painting “Friend Against the Wind”, based on his own engraving on the back, and this is the name Scott uses for her research.

Bates Museum curator William Law said the discovery of the painting and Scott’s ability to place it in the context of Hartley’s career is why this research is important. “The chase continues. There is still a lot of flogging to do, but there are moments of exciting revelation to it,” Lu said. “It’s what you live for.”

Low said the Vilcek Foundation grant would allow Scott to do more research to try to account for more of Hartley’s missing work. “The grant we got for the project from the Horowitz Foundation was very generous and was a good start to a very important project. This grant puts us in a position to cross the finish line. Jill has been frantically working to identify works and connect with art collectors and institutions,” Lu said. .

The New York Foundation, founded by art lovers and Hartley lovers Jan and Marika Velik, supports arts and science projects, and has collaborated with Bates on this year’s exhibition “Marsden Hartley: An Adventurer in the Arts” at the museum. Mills commended the Felsick Foundation for its support of the museum and its research. “They are deeply committed to Hartley and modern American art, and we are thrilled and delighted to be in a partnership with them,” he said.

Until Scott’s research, modern Hartley connoisseurs knew little about the 1936 painting other than what they extracted from the black and white photograph, which was limited. They feared its disappearance, counting it among the nearly 240 paintings or works on paper of Hartley missing among the 1,650 or so that he created over 40 years of his career.

Some of them may be hiding in dusty attics, others are stored in banks. Most likely, many of those lost works were truly lost early paintings or drawings that are not unaccounted for. “We’re pretty sure of that,” Scott said.

Among those likely to be lost is a painting of a cigar shop next to Hartley’s studio on Lisbon Street in Lewiston from 1902 or 1903, which is described in correspondence in the Hartley Collection in Bates. “We’ve never seen anything like that kind of storefront or that view of Lisbon Street,” Scott said. “But there is a lot of research to be done.”

On the Marsden Hartley Legacy Project website, collectors are invited to submit work for Scott for examination. The hope is to encourage people who might keep some of that unfinished business to come forward.

“Many of the applications submitted so far have not been Hartley’s work, but there are many examples of people who have heard about our project and submitted something (original by Hartley),” she said.

One was a Hartley watercolor made by an appraiser of a Midwest estate. “Indeed, it was one of those lost paintings, what I call one of Hartley’s ‘unknown whereabouts’ work. She was setting up an estate for a woman who owned it and communicated with us.”

It was another Eureka moment, with more to come.

The project currently has a part-time employee, a graduate student in art history from Columbia University who helps obtain images and run a social media campaign. Scott said the Vilcek Foundation grant will allow her to hire another researcher to help explore and document ownership of artworks.

“The search continues into the ownership history of more than 1,600 Hartley businesses, finding current owners in addition to previous ownership,” she said. “This is what I hope to do with Vilcek’s support, to recruit another potential art history graduate student or someone with experience in this type of research. That would be of great help to me.”

With one more person on board, Scott will be free to do the artistic espionage work that inspires her and is vital to the success of the project.

“We are an educational institution, and our focus is to support scholarship so the things to know are known,” said Mills, director of the museum. “A generation discovers works that have been out of sight for a long time and makes scientific discoveries by focusing on this work and this work and connecting the dots between those works, where only this kind of practical scholarship can do.”


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