It is always a great moment when artworks for a major exhibition arrive at Crystal Bridges: unpacking the crates and viewing the artworks is a similar experience to unpacking Christmas presents: sometimes there are great surprises involved. Like, for instance, in the case of Marsden Hartley’s painting Maine Landscape, Autumn No. 13. The work is part of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection Crystal Bridges shares with Fisk University, and is featured in the current exhibition The Artists’ Eye: Georgia O’Keeffe and the Alfred Stieglitz Collection.
We decided to reframe the painting, as the old frame was not appropriate aesthetically or protectively for this artwork. And once painting was unframed, it was discovered that there was another painting on its back side. This information was not previously documented in condition reports or other records in the painting’s object file; and the work hasn’t been published anywhere. This discovery in itself is remarkable; however, it is even more significant in what it reveals about the artist’s working methods and change in style in 1909. It also provides interesting insights into the painting’s exhibition history.
The front side of the painting depicts a mountain scene in Maine and was painted by Hartley in warm fall colors and short, stitch-like brush strokes in a Post-Impressionist style influenced by Italian painter Giovanni Segantini. Mountains were a major subject in Hartley’s work, because they symbolized power and beauty. He could identify with their “profound loneliness,” and they helped him understand “the meaning of space, the significance of rhythm and the quality of time in appearances.”
Maine Landscape, Autumn, No.13 very likely belongs to a group of fifteen paintings titled Songs of Autumn that the artist included in his first solo exhibition at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery in 1909. The same year, Hartley visited Albert Pinkham Ryder in his studio, after viewing the Romantic painter’s work at the Montross Gallery in New York. Hartley’s dark landscapes from the year 1909 show Ryder’s influence on his work. He painted them “solely from memory and imagination…as close to Ryder as possible.” (View Ryder’s Misty Moonlight, in Crystal Bridges’ collection, here.) The untitled study on the back side of Maine Landscape seems to be one of these paintings. Hartley’s reference to Ryder is apparent in the mystical atmosphere of the landscape, as well as in the subtle variations of dark color and Expressionist loose brushwork accentuating forms. These influences mark a major stylistic break from Hartley’s previous Post-Impressionistic style (compare with the front side of painting). The discovery of the study on the back side makes it possible for the viewer to experience Hartley’s transition from one style to another on one and the same artist board!
Hartley probably painted on both sides of the paperboard because he had financial difficulties and needed to be resourceful with his art supplies: paperboard was cheaper than canvas and could be used without preparation, allowing for spontaneous painting directly on the support. Furthermore, the sturdiness and practical format of this support material worked well for Hartley’s transient lifestyle.
The exhibition label attached directly to the landscape on the back side attests to the fact that Maine Landscape, Autumn No.13 was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art’s major Marsden Hartley exhibition in 1944, a year after the artist’s death (MoMA exhibition #263, October 24, 1944-January 14, 1945). It also indicates that the painting’s frame didn’t have a backing: In 1909, Hartley told Stieglitz that he lacked funds for frames, and when Stieglitz agreed to assist him, he could probably only afford very basic framing.