Marsden Hartley loved Maine. And hated Maine.

He created here, but his fame as one of America’s greatest modernist painters came from the artwork he did in Europe.

In his later years, he wanted to be known as the painter of Maine. But in the 73 years since his death, no major exhibition has ever focused on his Maine works.

Until now.

Starting in March, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — one of the world’s largest art museums — will host “Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” a three-month-long, 90-plus-piece exhibition showcasing Hartley’s work about his home state.

That same show, with a few tweaks, will travel to Colby College in Waterville later in the summer for a four-month exhibition.

And, not to be outdone, Bates College in Lewiston — Hartley’s hometown — will host a smaller, complementary show on Hartley over the summer and fall.

It’s a lot of attention for a Lewiston-born artist, a man whose life was marked by hardship and loss, and whose Maine art did not earn so many accolades when he was alive. Hartley fans say it’s about time. 

“You can make him out to be kind of a tragic figure, but at the same time he was triumphant and kind of continues to be after his lifetime because his work is really holding up,” said Randall Griffey, curator at the Met and co-curator for the upcoming show. “It’s standing that test of time in a way that so much work does not.”

RESTLESS

He was born Edmund Hartley in Lewiston on Jan. 4, 1877 to English immigrants Thomas Hartley — a mill worker for at least some part of his life — and Eliza Jane Harbury, according to the catalog for “Marsden Hartley’s Maine.” The family lived in a boarding house at 12 Chestnut St.

Hartley was one of seven children, though the only boy to survive to adulthood, according to the catalog. As a child, he played in Franklin Pasture and sang in the Trinity Church choir.

But Hartley’s childhood was far from idyllic. His mother died when he was 8 and his father, unable to care for all the children, split up the family. Hartley went to live with an aunt in Auburn.

Four years later, Hartley’s father remarried — a childhood friend named Martha Marsden — and the couple moved to Cleveland, leaving young Hartley behind in Maine. At 15 he dropped out of school to work at an Auburn shoe factory to help support the family, according to the catalog.

Hartley left Maine for Cleveland a year later.

“He wrote about great memories of going into Franklin Pasture and exploring nature, but his mother died when he was very young and he attributed that event to a kind of sadness and bad associations he had with the state,” said Donna Cassidy, a Hartley scholar, University of Southern Maine art history professor and co-curator for “Marsden Hartley’s Maine.” “He had a kind of love-hate relationship with Maine.”

Although largely self taught, Hartley started taking art lessons with a Cleveland landscape painter when he was about 19. He later also studied at the Cleveland Art School, the National Academy of Design and William Merritt Chase’s New York School of Art.

Hartley returned to Maine for short stints over the next several years, sketching, painting and meeting other artists. In 1906, he returned to Lewiston hoping to teach art, according to the catalog. While in the city, his work was featured in the Lewiston Saturday Journal.

That same year, he added his stepmother’s last name to his own, calling himself Edmund Marsden Hartley. In 1908 — the year he presented his painting “Shady Brook” to the Lewiston Public Library — he dropped Edmund and started going by Marsden Hartley.

Within a year, Hartley’s artwork got the attention of Alfred Stieglitz, a New York photographer whose art gallery would become a famous part of America’s art scene in the early 1900s. Stieglitz exhibited Hartley’s work, and the show captured the attention of another gallery owner who agreed to sponsor Hartley for two years — his allowance determined by how much it cost to live in Maine. 

By 1912, Hartley was living in Europe. Over the next couple of decades he moved frequently, painting in France, England, Germany, Italy and Mexico, with return trips to the United States.

“He was someone who had real mood swings and he was very restless. He moved around a lot because he would go someplace and love it upon first going there and then quickly change his mind,” Cassidy said.

His life continued to be marked by tragedy. Hartley, who was gay, lost a good friend — many believe he was the man Hartley loved — during World War I. The soldier was the subject of Hartley’s famous “Portrait of a German Officer.”

Years later, Hartley became close with a fishing family in Nova Scotia. Two of the family’s sons — young men who Hartley may also have loved — were killed in a boating accident in 1936. Hartley was grief stricken.

In 1937, Hartley returned to Maine — a return that was announced in the Lewiston Saturday Journal. Hartley moved around Maine as he had moved around Europe, living in, among other places, Portland, Bangor, Vinalhaven and Corea, a lobster fishing village in Gouldsboro.

Through it all, Hartley painted, drew and wrote poetry and prose, exhibiting his artwork regularly. His painting style changed as he changed, his exuberant early work informed by impressionism, his later works more realistic and rustic, moody and heavy. Often, his landscapes were inspired by things he saw in Maine, even when he was overseas.

“Hartley said very poetically that he wanted to reconcile with Maine and that Maine never left him and was with him, in a way, wherever he happened to be at any given point in time,” Griffey said.

On Sept. 2, 1943, Hartley died of heart failure at age 66. As per his wishes, his ashes were scattered over the Androscoggin River. 

‘A GUY FROM LEWISTON’

Hartley is often named as one of America’s greatest modernist painters, heralded as part of a crowd that includes Georgia O’Keefe, John Marin and Charles Demuth, among others.

But while his work is taught in art schools and art history classes, his best-known pieces are those he created in Europe. His Maine work is less familiar.

And that’s just wrong, Hartley scholars say.

“We realized there was a story to be told that had not yet been told,” said Elizabeth Finch, Lunder curator of American art at Colby College and co-curator of “Marsden Hartley’s Maine.”

Hartley scholars Finch, Griffey and Cassidy began talking about a Hartley exhibition in 2012, initially considering it as a Colby show. Bowdoin College in Brunswick had just finished a successful “Edward Hopper’s Maine” exhibition, and Hartley fans lamented that Hopper wasn’t even from Maine.

“I think there was a desire to maybe assert Hartley’s credentials as a native in response to Hopper as a tourist. I don’t mean that to be such an aspersion, but it’s true,” Griffey said.

When Griffey moved from Amherst College in 2012 and joined the Met in 2013, he brought his love of Hartley with him. The Met agreed to join in on a Hartley exhibition.

Although there had been significant Hartley shows since his death in 1943, none focused solely on his Maine work. This will be the first.

“Hartley’s star has been on the rise steadily, and in some cases dramatically, over the last 20 years. My hope is really the show will ratchet him up even another notch,” Griffey said. “It will prove that he can pull off a really great show without any of that European art in it.”

Some 90 pieces will be in the upcoming exhibition. While some were already in collections owned by the Met and Colby, many have been borrowed — some from private collections that have rarely been seen by the public.

The Lewiston Public Library is lending Hartley’s “Shady Brook” painting — marking the first time the painting will be seen out of state since it was given to the library 109 years ago. Bates College is lending several items, including sketches Hartley made of a man chopping wood, three fishermen and Mount Katahdin.

“He really is one of, or perhaps the most significant, of the American modernists. And he’s from Maine. He’s a guy from Maine, a guy from Lewiston. That’s a wonderful thing to celebrate,” said Dan Mills, director of the Bates College Museum of Art.

The Met exhibition will run from March 15 through June 18. The show will then open at Colby, where it will run from July 8 through Nov. 12.

The exhibition will largely be the same, though some pieces from the Met — artwork from artists who inspired Hartley — will not appear at the Colby show and Colby will showcase additional drawings from the Bates College collection.

For Hartley fans who can’t get enough, Bates will also run its own Hartley show, “At Home and Abroad: Works from the Marsden Hartley Memorial Collection,” from June 9 through Oct. 7 to complement the larger “Marsden Hartley’s Maine.”

“Having Hartley celebrated in a big way in his home state is overdue,” said Bill Low, curator of the Bates College museum. “It’s a nice thing to be celebrating.”

The shows are expected to draw attention, not only regionally, but also nationally and internationally, all from people who will see Maine the way Hartley saw Maine.

“It’s really about time that somebody’s done this,” Cassidy said.

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Where and when:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Breuer), New York City

“Marsden Hartley’s Maine”

March 15 – June 18

Colby College, Waterville

“Marsden Hartley’s Maine”

July 8 – Nov. 12

Bates College, Lewiston

“At Home and Abroad: Works from the Marsden Hartley Memorial Collection”

June 9 – Oct. 7

A (small) Marsden Hartley can be yours!

The Friends of the Lewiston Public Library are selling special note cards showing the library’s “Shady Brook” painting by Marsden Hartley. The note cards cost $2 each or $7 for a package of six, with proceeds going to the library.

The note cards are available at the library’s first floor lending services desk or online at lplonline.org with an additional charge for shipping.


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