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Hartley Entire Collection

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[Study for Fisherman's Family]

ca. 1936-1943
Marsden Hartley, American, (Lewiston, ME, January 4, 1877 - September 2, 1943, Ellsworth, ME)

This drawing and four others (MHMC 1955.1.95 and 96, plus 1955.1.44, and ink sketch) are preliminary studies for several paintings executed between 1938 and 1943, including Fisherman's Family, ca. 1942-43 (Crocker Museum, Sacramento CA), all of which refer back to 1935 and 1936 when he lived with the Francis Mason family at their island home on Eastern Point, Nova Scotia, near the tiny fishing community of Blue Rocks. Specifically, these drawings and especially the painting are elegiac commemorations of the drowning deaths of Alty and Donny Mason in September 1936. It was not until 1938 and 1939 that Hartley, who greatly mourned these young men (he had fallen in love, it would seem, with Alty Mason).

Even before the drownings Hartley had begun to write about his experience living with the Masons in Nova Scotia and descriptions of each family member to whom he assigned fictitious French Canadian names: Cleophas for Francis Mason; Marie Ste. Esprit, for Martha Mason, the mother; Adelard for Alty Mason; Etienne, his younger brother; and Felice, the only daughter. This original a manuscript, titled "Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Episode" (YCAL) evolved after the drowning into an account of the tragedy, complete with poems lamenting the loss and the sea's cruelty. Eventually, as Hartley acquired its broader significance, Hartley changed the subtitle to "A North Atlantic Tragedy," and a copy of that typescript is among the writings by Hartley that became part of the MHMC.

This and the next drawing (MHMC 1955.1.96) are alike in the basic composition of five figures: mother (Marie Ste. Esprit) and daughter (Felice) seated on chairs in front of the three drown boys, Alty (Adelard) on the right with upstanding hair, his brother Allen (Etienne) at center, and their cousin, Allen (Alain) at right. Both are preliminary drawings for one of Hartley's last paintings, Fisherman's Family, ca. 1942-43 (Crocker Museum, Sacramento CA). Even as drawings these works are fraught with emotion, indicated by the formal, funeral arrangement, Alty's giant hand gently resting, as though to assuage or assure, on the woman's shoulder, and finally, in the somber expressions, eyes closed or, with the boys, hollow, unseeing. Hartley referred to his separate portraits of Cleophas, Adelard, and Marie Ste. Esprit as "archaic"—a term implying both a primitive style and his chosen moniker of these simple fisher folk he felt so fortunate to have found and cherished. Cleophas and His Own is filled with fond, poetic prose that describes their genuine Christian piety, love of family, and dedication to work.

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