[Study for Christ Held by Half-Naked Men]
(January 4, 1877–September 2, 1943)
This drawing is one of a series of ten works (seven drawings, three oil paintings) executed by Hartley around 1942 on the Christian theme of the Deposition from the Cross or the Pieta. The MHMC has three drawings (this one, 1955.1.80 and 1955.1.82)--all studies for Christ Held by Half-Naked Men, 1942 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC) in which Hartley references Jesus's disciples (mostly fishermen or common men) by depicting Maine fishermen tenderly lowering the body of the crucified Christ. This drawing and the next, titled Badly Bruised – Who Is He? (MHMC 1955.1.82) are both ink drawings and schematic in style, although this version uses shading in the four central figures to add volumetric weight to the large male bodies. With Badly Bruised, on the other hand, the artist used the barest of contour lines and dashes and dots to define the bodies. The pathos of the scene in both is reinforced by the closed or downcast eyes of all the figures.
Though raised in the Episcopal Church, Hartley was never an adherent of any organized religion. Nevertheless, he had a lifelong, idiosyncratic involvement with a variety of spiritual traditions, especially Christian mysticism. He read widely among the medieval mystics and lives of the saints, wrote essays and poems on spiritual and religious themes, and incorporated imagery, iconography, and implicit and explicit Christian subjects into his art. In the last three years of his life, perhaps sensing his own mortality, Hartley became absorbed in depicting the pathos and suffering of Jesus’s crucifixion in eight major paintings and many drawings, all powerfully emotive.
Critics have noted that some of Hartley's depictions of the Christ depictions appear to be self-referential, Hartley reflecting, perhaps on his own artistic experience, his own martyrdom, of a sort, to a life of neglect and poverty—as well as the sacrifices being made by young men in the war then raging in Europe. Speaking of the crucifixion works, Hartley wrote in a letter that summer, "They have a slightly ironic sense because I think of little else than the crucifixion of brave and helpless youth. . . . They are not in the slightest sense propaganda, but are strictly poetical. There was a crucifixion took place a few months ago – 6 miles from here – a young and very talented soldier," a talented musician who had graduated from Bowdoin College, was "sent home – dead – overworked by military rigours.”
Another confirmation of his allusion to the sacrifices being made by World War II soldiers is that among the books in Hartley's personal library in the MHMC (Bates Library, Special Collections) is a copy of Wallace Stevens' collection of poems titled Parts of a World, published the same year, 1942. Stevens explains in a note at the end of the section titled "Examination of the Hero in a Time of War" that "[i]n the presence of the violent reality of war," when "the poetry of war . . . is a consciousness of fact, but of heroic fact." Hartley, who had long read and admired Stevens' poetry, no doubt resonated with Stevens' notion of the heroic—and that a war of such immense consequence and scale "affects the scale of one's thinking and constitutes a participating in the heroic." The only markings in the book are two Xs on page 129, where appear the lines "To naked men, to women naked as rain" and "And in what covert may we, naked, be / Beyond the knowledge of nakedness, as part / Of reality"—perhaps a source of inspiration for Hartley's rendition of the naked men and women who attend to the Christ figure in these crucifixion, deposition, and pietà drawings and paintings. With expressionist mastery Hartley conveys the mystery and agony of the cross as no other American modernist dared to do.