The Maine Event

You can practically smell the salty air of the Maine coastline in artist Marsden Hartley’s collection of New England–themed paintings at the Met Breuer. Our art expert, Molly Surno, dives in.

Photo by Juan Trujillo

Now more than ever, it’s poignant to reflect on the nativism and regionalism—with all of its fetishism, longing, and darkness—that American Expressionist painter Marsden Hartley captured in his moody depictions of Maine, his home state.  

Hartley grew up in Maine, but left his difficult childhood—he was no stranger to death or poverty—in New England as soon as he could, in 1899. He floated around the globe, from New York City to Berlin to Paris, rubbing elbows with the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, and Alberto Giacometti and solidifying his reputation as a pioneer of modernist painting, but never spent more than two years in one spot. At age 60, he cashed in his international life to return to his native state and become, as he said, the “painter of Maine.” The current exhibition at the Met Breuer investigates the deep obsession with his home state, which helped define American modernism. 

Photo by Frank E Graham

A mural projection of black and white footage of waves crashing on jagged rocks in Prouts Neck, Maine, anchors the show. This foreboding and meditative loop sets the stage for Hartley’s modest paintings of coastlines, seascapes, lighthouses, lobsters, logs, churches, and forests—and provides a profound sense of place.

Hartley’s Maine is wild, rugged, independent, and isolated. His love for his state is a dark romance that can be seen clearly in his Mount Katahdin paintings, with the bright reds and blues of the foreground silhouetted by moody black mountains. Hartley prided himself on his paintings being less than pretty, but their bold confidence makes them something more—like Maine, their beauty is unintentional and primitive. No wonder the artist resented the rise of Maine’s tourism, which he called Vacationland. 

Photo by Juan Trujillo

One of the most provocative sections of the show, nestled in the center of the floor, is titled “Embodying Maine.” A series of strapping, hulky beachcombers and young fishermen explore a reverential and sensual side of Hartley’s masculine Maine. The artist, who was gay, wrestles with his desire of the classic Maine man despite the difficulty of being openly homosexual in the rural parts of the state. In works like Knotting Rope (1939–1940), Down East Young Blades (1940), and Flaming American (1939–1940), you see this conflict realized through the erotic portraits of muscular shore boys. They combine lust, longing, and admiration for the out-of-reach men who populate his homeland.

One year before Hartley died, in 1943, he signed a contract with the Museum of Modern Art for a retrospective. After his death, the show became a memorial exhibition. As one obituary read: “Hartley’s death did not come too soon to allow him satisfaction and realization. It was too soon for the world, for it terminated a still vigorous and clearly visioned painting career.”

Photo courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

Why You Should Go: Hartley elegantly blended nostalgia, pride, and confusion with his bold and moody palette, making his small paintings feel bigger than they are. His emotional portrait of Maine is difficult to shake.

Marsden Hartley’s Maine”
The Met Breuer
945 Madison Avenue (between East 74th and 75th Streets), Upper East Side
Through Sunday, June 18

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