Painted in 1942, a year of long overdue critical and financial success for Marsden Hartley, White Sea Horse is a profoundly spiritual and lyrical composition that is emblematic of the artist's most successful late works. While Hartley painted still life subjects throughout his career, the series of paintings he completed in the 1940s, during his final summers in Corea, Maine, are among his most powerful and poignant. In its immediacy and vigor, White Sea Horse is a superlative example from this period of which Barbara Haskell writes, "Hartley was now producing work whose level of richness and achievement equaled if not exceeded that of his German military paintings." (Marsden Hartley, New York, 1980, p. 123)
White Sea Horse belongs to a series in which Hartley isolates his subject and sets it against a richly-hued, monochromatic background. While the present work relates most directly to Chinese Seahorse (1941-42, University of Minnesota, Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, Minnesota), Hartley chose various emblems including shells, birds and, in one work, a lobster. These intimate compositions, characterized by their directness, are reminescent of a number of earlier sources including Albert Pinkham Ryder's The Dead Bird (circa late 1870s, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) and Hartley's German Officer series of the 1910s.
Karen Wilkinson writes of these late still lifes, "Each of these paintings is simply an intense study of an individual object, rendered in such detail and with such tactile sophistication that the work has a potent, almost iconic immediacy." (B. Kornhauser, ed., Marsden Hartley, New Haven, Connecticut, 2002, p. 325) Indeed, White Sea Horse is rich in its simplicity and characterized by a deliberately primitive aesthetic in which "[c]olor is minimal but so concentrated and rich in tonality that the image emerges like a secret treasure from the depths of a dark pool." (G. Scott, Marsden Hartley, New York, 1988, p. 144) Here Hartley uses broad, expressive brushwork to capture the epic form of the pale seahorse adrift in a crimson sea. So intently focused when painting the present work, he even painted over a spider that had crawled on to the board, forever condemning it to the same enigmatic fate as the hippocampus it is enshrined next to. The compelling image is deliberately ambiguous, stirring various emotions and interpretations in the viewer.
White Sea Horse relates strongly to Hartley's late figurative works in which he also positioned his subjects against monochromatic backgrounds devoid of narrative elements. Gail Scott writes, "It was perhaps in the images of dead birds and sea creatures that the breadth of Hartley's vision is most palpably felt. These, too, he considered portraits, rather than conventional still lifes." (Marsden Hartley, p. 143) Portraits such as Adelard the Drowned, Master of the Phantom (1938-39, University Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis), Madawaska-Acadian Light-Heavy (1940, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois) and Christ Figure (circa 1941-43, location unknown) are stylistically similar to the present work. Each is closely cropped, belying Hartley's interest in photography at the time, and he utilizes conscious primitivism, reducing the compositions to their fundamental elements to create expressive and engaging works. These paintings, in their suggestive sparseness, also conjure the Christian themes that interested Hartley in his later years.
Gail Scott comments on the importance of the series of powerful late works that includes White Sea Horse, "Hartley's final work is the painting of essential reality, in which what is left unsaid, the profoundly empty space behind the image conveys as much as the actual subject. Suspended in this Zen-like emptiness are small mundane objects...depicted with a deceptively simple--even, at times, ungainly directness. But underneath this American backwoods nai<->veté was the authority of an artist who had used the European modernist tradition to escape provincialism, and then, with astonishing independence, gone on to become, in the words of one critic, 'one of the few Americans of his generation to stand whole and free, at once the undeniable citizen of the world and his own imagination.'" (Marsden Hartley, 1988, pp. 144-45) Indeed, in its powerful and evocative simplicity and its wholly unique and highly personal aesthetic, White Sea Horse can be seen as the culmination of Hartley's tumultuous and seminal career.
We would like to thank Mrs. Rosenberg, Ilda François and Donald Prochera at the Paul Rosenberg Archives for their assistance in cataloguing this work.