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Monstrous Betrayal

ca. 1941 - 1943
Marsden Hartley, American, (Lewiston, ME, January 4, 1877 - September 2, 1943, Ellsworth, ME)

This drawing is one of a number of self-referential works by Hartley, executed in the last few years of his life and often (as is the case with Monstrous Betrayal) alluding to the self-sacrifice of Christ's Crucifixion. Indicative of his interest in the Crucifixion at this late time in his life, is the fact among the photographs in Hartley's possession at the time of his death and now in the MHMC is a photograph of a large Spanish Crucifix (1150-1200) at the Cloisters that he purchased from the Metropolitan and wrote to a friend about in June 1938, saying the Crucifix "impresses me tremendously. The only intellectual one I ever saw – amazing really and I have it on my wall here now – a kind of wise look in the face as – as if – it will be a tremendous ordeal but I think I [can] go through it, and the sense of the crucifixion is in the mouth in this case.”

Hartley's title for the drawing, inscribed at l.r., "Monstrous Betrayal" offers a possible explanation of its meaning. The words are quoted from an essay by naturalist, W. H. Hudson (1841-1922) in which the author, enjoys the calm and beauty of a quiet April morning on the shore of a secluded pond, when he is suddenly overcome by thoughts, "intolerably sad," of lost friends who "appeared something more than mere memories and mentally-seen faces and forms [but] with me but yesterday, as it seemed." The "dreadful power" that could change the sweet moment of the day into the bitter sense of loss was "a monstrous betrayal, a thing unnatural . . . Could I any longer love and worship this dreadful power that made us and filled our hearts with gladness—could I say of it, 'Though it slay me yet will I trust it?'" Similar experiences of tragic loss afflicted Hartley, from the death of his lover, Karl von Freyberg in World War I to the suicide of his friend, poet Hart Crane in 1932 to the drowning of the Mason brothers in Nova Scotia in 1936. Hudson concludes the essay by musing that these friends "are not wholly, irretrievably lost. . . . They are present in nature: through ourselves . . . they have become part and parcel of it and give it an expression." (W.H. Hudson, "The Return of the Chiff-Chaff" in
The Collected Works: A traveler in little things (J.M. Dent, 1923, pp. 199-205). Hudson's words must have resonated with Hartley, since through his art—specifically the works that memorialized those lost friends (the German Officer series, 1914-15 for von Freyberg; Eight Bells Folly, 1932 for Hart Crane; the archaic portraits and Fisherman's Last Supper, 1941 for the Nova Scotia men), so that they "are present" for us.

Adelard Ascending (current whereabouts unknown) is a painting related to the Monstrous Betrayal drawing. Here, the figure on the cross is named, Adelard being Hartley's name for Alty Mason, one of the drowned brothers. His cross is enveloped by giant wings being borne heavenward by two ropes, above the rocky coastal waters and sailing ships of his Nova Scotia island home, his life immortalized, "present in nature" through Hartley's expression of it.

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