This work is included in Gail R. Scott’s Marsden Hartley Legacy Project.
With its daring modernity and dramatic brushwork, Calm After Storm Off Hurricane Island, Vinal Haven, Maine exemplifies Marsden Hartley’s New England landscapes of the 1930s. During this period of his career, Hartley was determined to reintegrate himself into his native country from which he had long felt isolated and alienated. Just as he had found Mount Sainte-Victoire in the south of France to be a continuous source of inspiration, the landscape of the Northeast provided an emotional lift that would serve his artistic and expressive needs. Calm After Storm Off Hurricane Island is at once a traditional scene following in the Maine landscape tradition of Frederic Church and Winslow Homer, as well as a direct, emotional manifestation anticipating the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in the decades to come. This intriguing duality firmly established Hartley in the annals of both great American landscape painters and pioneers of American Modernism.
Born in Lewiston, Maine, Hartley began his career with a series of Maine landscapes composed of short, stitch-like brushstrokes that emphasize texture, pattern and a planar approach to space. Mirroring the transcendentalist poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, these works also demonstrate a spiritual, even mystical reverence for nature, as the tapestry of tightly-knit brushstrokes allude to the underlying unity of the natural world. These early Maine landscapes importantly captured the attention of the pioneer photographer and Modernist dealer Alfred Stieglitz, establishing one of the most formative relationships of Hartley’s career. Stieglitz gave Hartley his first one man show at his gallery “291” in May of 1909, Exhibition of Paintings in Oil by Mr. Marsden Hartley of Maine. He also introduced the young artist to the work of European avant-garde artists, such as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, compelling Hartley to travel abroad to further his artistic development. With Stieglitz’s support, he left for Paris in April 1912.
After extensive travels as widespread as Berlin, Bermuda and Santa Fe, Hartley returned to his home state in 1937 with the goal of becoming “the painter from Maine.” Explaining his fascination with the trees and rocks of the area, Hartley once poetically wrote, “in them rests the kind of integrity I believe in and from which source I draw my private strength both spiritually and esthetically” (M. Hartley, quoted in On Art, New York, 1982, p. 199). Looking to the Maine landscape for his primary inspiration, Hartley followed in the tradition of several nineteenth century American artists, including Fitz Henry Lane, Frederic Edwin Church and especially Winslow Homer. The year 1936 marked the centenary of Homer’s birth and spurred several important exhibitions of which Hartley would have been keenly aware when painting his own Maine seascapes. The emphasis on the overwhelming power of the ocean in Homer’s iconic Prout’s Neck paintings can be seen as a key influence on works such as Calm After Storm Off Hurricane Island, Vinal Haven, Maine, and indeed Hartley himself wrote in praise of Homer’s “Yankeeism of the first order” and his “fierce feeling for truth, a mania, almost for actualities,” (M. Hartley, quoted in “An Ambivalent Prodigal: Marsden Hartley as ‘The Painter from Maine,’” Marsden Hartley’s Maine, exh. cat., Colby College Museum of Art, Waterwille, 2017, p. 158).
Yet, while Homer remained firmly rooted in a careful attention to realism, Hartley expresses his spiritual appreciation for the Maine landscape through more visceral, gestural technique. In Calm After Storm Off Hurricane Island, Vinal Haven, Maine, Hartley captures a tumultuous viewpoint he would have seen on his first trip to Vinalhaven, on Fox Island, in June 1937 and when painting there again the following summer. As epitomized by this work, “His brooding late expressionist pictures rely on simplified forms, abstract patterning, and intertwining shapes to generate drama and emotion” (S.B. Frank, M. Häßler, “Abstraction: The Avant-Garde Between the Wars,” From Hopper to Rothko: America’s Road to Modern Art, exh. cat., Potsdam, Germany, 2017, p. 150). The choppy, vertical brushwork depicting the foaming, white-capped sea creates physical and psychological tension and mirrors the craggy masses of trees on the islands. Defining flattened forms with thick, black outlines, Hartley adds a weighty monumentality to the rocks and dense forest. In fact, the expressive, dark contours of Hartley’s late works have been likened to “drawing with paint.” Isabelle Duvernois and Rachel Mustalish explain, “His use of a palette knife to spread and score the paint as well as various other tooling techniques all suggest great gestural freedom, which he employed to make tangible the rugged terrain and unrelenting force of the elements” (I. Duvernois and R. Mustalish, “’The Livingness of Appearances:’ Materials and Techniques of Marsden Hartley in Maine,” Marsden Hartley’s Maine, exh. cat., Colby College Museum of Art, Waterwille, 2017, p. 118).
As a result of his expressive, vigorous application, in Calm After Storm Off Hurricane Island, Vinal Haven, Maine, Hartley perfectly evokes the harsh majesty of nature with a strikingly violent immediacy and emotional power. “As Charmion von Wiegand observed in her glowing review of [his] 1940 exhibition with Hudson Walker: ‘Hartley’s craftsmanship has the conscientious sincerity and simplicity of a Maine woodsman who hews, peels and erects his logs from the forest for a safe and sturdy shelter.’ And indeed, Hartley’s late paintings pulsate with a vibrant, audacious directness that reflects authentic expression and a deep connection to his subject. Composed to be unartful, filled with irregular, non-naturalistic, but still recognizable, forms often with heavy black outlines that reinforce their power, the late images of Maine are unpretentious yet grand—everyday, but epic in scope and meaning” (R.R. Griffey, “An Ambivalent Prodigal: Marsden Hartley as ‘The Painter from Maine,’” Marsden Hartley’s Maine, exh. cat., Colby College Museum of Art, Waterwille, 2017, New York, 2017, p. 106).