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Musical Sea Notes

Musical Sea Notes
signed with initials and dated 'MH/42' (lower right)
oil on masonite
8 x 30 in. (20.3 x 76.2 cm.)
Painted in 1942.
The artist.
Paul Rosenberg & Co., New York.
Henry P. Mcllhenney, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, acquired from the above.
Parke-Bernet, New York, 11 May 1966, lot 19, sold by the above.
Private collection, New York, acquired from the above.
Owings-Dewey Fine Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico, acquired from the above, 1989.
Acquired by the late owner from the above, 1995.
Archives of American Art, Elizabeth McCausland Files.
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts, Lawrence Art Museum, Williams College; Buffalo, New York, Albright Art Gallery; Chicago, Illinois, Arts Club of Chicago; Austin, Texas, College of Fine Arts, University of Texas; Jacksonville, Illinois, MacMurray College; San Francisco, California, San Francisco Museum of Art; Colorado Springs, Colorado, Taylor Museum; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Lyonel Feininger/Marsden Hartley, October 24, 1944-January 14, 1945, p. 93.
Santa Monica, California, Marilyn Butler Gallery, 1989.
Mobile, Alabama, Fine Arts Museum of the South, Modernism and American Painting of the 1930s, February 12-March 28, 1993.
Further details
This painting is included in The Marsden Hartley Legacy Project: Complete Paintings and Works on Paper, with Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, Maine. We are grateful for Gail R. Scott’s assistance with the cataloguing of this work.

Brought to you by

Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

Musical Sea Notes cleverly synthesizes Marsden Hartley’s lifelong exploration of the connection between musical and visual art with the confidence and clarity of his late career. Painted in 1942, a year of long overdue critical and financial success for the artist, the present lyrical composition is emblematic of Hartley’s most poetic work completed during his final summers in Corea, Maine.

A central tenant of Modernism, and a shared fascination of Arthur Dove and Stuart Davis among others, the synergy between music and painting was first explored by Hartley in some of his earliest Maine landscapes, which caught the eye of Alfred Stieglitz and were exhibited at his gallery “291” in May 1909 under the collective titles “Songs of Autumn” and “Songs of Winter.” In 1912, he traveled to Paris and wrote home in a letter, “It’s a new theme I’m working on—did you ever hear of anyone trying to paint music.” (as quoted in D. Cassidy, Painting the Musical City: Jazz and Cultural Identity in American Art, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 6) Hartley explored this goal in a series of six works from 1912-13, including Musical Theme No. 2 (Bach Preludes et Fugues) (1912, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), which imbeds an abstraction with musical symbols like treble clefs and staffs.

In the later years of his career, Hartley became more reflective and poetic than ever before, while also taking a more bravura, representational approach to his paintings. As such, in Musical Sea Notes, Hartley is more direct in both his visualization of music and his still-life subject. Rather than hiding his musical motifs within a linear abstraction, he clearly delineates a line of musical notation as the central organizing element of the painting. Yet, the composition quickly strikes offbeat with its placement of shrimp and seahorses in place of musical notes. In the 1940s, Hartley was regularly painting sea creatures as isolated still-life subjects against richly-hued, monochromatic backgrounds, such as Chinese Seahorse (1941-42, Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota), White Seahorse (1942, The Jan T. and Marica Vilcek Collection) and Lobster on Black Background (1940-41, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.).

Gail Scott writes of these works, "color is minimal but so concentrated and rich in tonality that the image emerges like a secret treasure from the depths of a dark pool." (Marsden Hartley, New York, 1988, p. 144) In the present work, Hartley takes a similar approach with the musical score emerging from a dark black background as if floating out from mysterious waters. Scott continues, "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 naiveté 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, pp. 144-45) Indeed, in its witty juxtaposition of key motifs of Hartley’s career into a poetic yet charmingly fun still life, Musical Sea Notes embodies Hartley’s wholly unique and highly inventive aesthetic.

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