We are grateful to Gail. R. Scott for her assistance in researching and cataloguing this work, and for preparing the following essay.
In Church by the Barrens, Indian Harbor Maine, preeminent American modernist Marsden Hartley envelopes his viewer in the quiet hush and deepening sable shadows that surround a little country church—a fishermen’s church probably, given the lobster traps piled at right. The church is visible in the gloaming, darkly silhouetted against a pale purple-grey sky, softly radiant with a sunset aura, a citron sliver of new moon half obscured by clouds. In August 1940 Hartley moved to the small fishing village of Corea on the Schoodic Peninsula in Down East, Maine. The location had the prerequisite features that suited his temperament and preference for isolated, untamed stretches of landscape (just as the rugged geology of the glacial moraine at Dogtown Common on Cape Ann had drawn him in 1931 and 1934).
Almost immediately, Hartley fixed on a motif that fit the place and his mood. Writing to his friend and patron Adelaide Kuntz, the artist described his discovery of a “dear little white church” in the neighboring village of Prospect Harbor. A large sketch of the church (Fig.1) was quickly followed by the oil, which, as indicated by an inscription on the verso with the date Aug. 1940, means that Church by the Barrens was likely the first landscape completed after he settled in the area. Startling in its spontaneity and freshness, the painting clearly reflects Hartley’s engagement with the subject.
Particularly luminescent passages, such as the layers of fleshy pink and golden clouds hovering on the horizon at right, or the glowing stained glass window and the corner of the roof above, are revelatory of Hartley’s mature style. Delicately rendered, filmy layers of yellow ochre, pale greens, deep indigo-blues, and orange highlights reflect the waning rays of light. The lobster pots haphazardly piled at lower right emerge from the shadows by means of a vibrating chromatic tapestry: roughly delineated blocks of ruddy orange, dun, and dark brown are accented by dashes of white and dabs of sapphire. The year is 1940 but Hartley’s painterly technique and fevered brushwork look forward fifteen years to the texture and gestural feel of a Phillip Guston (who admired Hartley) or an Adolph Gottlieb. Or cast your eye on the left side edge of the church where Hartley defies scenic reality or spatial logic by allowing a grayish misty atmosphere to encroach over the tree and morph into pure painting, reminding us of the suffused transitions and tonal harmonies of a Mark Rothko.
Hartley’s interest in churches as a thematic motif featured in some of his landscapes, dates to his experience with the Francis Mason family in the tiny Nova Scotia community of Blue Rocks, specifically the aftermath of the tragic drowning of the Mason brothers, Alty and Donny, in November of 1936. In Church on the Moors, Nova Scotia and savage seascapes like Northern Seascape (Milwaukee Art Center), Hartley returned to the Ryderesque mode of dark and brooding night skies with threatening clouds rimmed in moonlight to convey his empathic response to the death of these two boys at sea. The simplicity and archaic quality of the fishing villages in Maine reminded him of Blue Rocks and revived his interest in the church motif.
Like its Nova Scotia predecessor, Church by the Barrens was inspired by a specific church (the Prospect Harbor Methodist Church, extant today and essentially unchanged since Hartley’s day) but is not a depiction of it in situ.[i] Rather, intrigued by the local vernacular word “hathe” (heath) to describe stretches of useless land, Hartley relocates the church from town to the “barrens,” thereby poeticizing the mood and imbuing the subject with an other-worldly ambience that, for him, correlated with the type of authentic piety he found among the fisher folk of Nova Scotia and coastal Maine.[ii] Additionally, the “Indian Harbor” part of Hartley’s title is an old 19th century place name for Corea, not Prospect Harbor—a fictionalizing of the location whereby he moves the painting from actual time and place into the imaginative zone of beyond real.
Earlier, in 1937, Hartley had determined to paint another Maine church: the meeting house at Head Tide in the village of Alna, further inland and south of Corea. This iconic white frame New England church, situated on a hill above the Sheepscot River, became for Hartley a way to bolster his public image as the painter of Maine, and over the next three years, he produced three handsome versions of the motif (Fig. 2), each one stark and imposing against the daytime sky, the black windows boldly contrasted against the pristine whiteness of the church.
Church by the Barrens, by contrast, conveys an entirely different effect from the Head Tide series, as confirmed in letters from August and October 1940 in which he described his new work as flowing out of him, “quite lyrical and serene” and “almost symphonic it its tonal simplicity.”[iii] Musing further on this notion of he wrote “...a painter cannot be an artist until he has achieved the sense of his relationship to the larger sense of life around him...– that is the true quality of appearances cannot be understood until the depth of our dimensions has been probed & understood.”
This painting, just coming into public view after being tucked away for several decades in private hands, is fresh affirmation that during the last three years of his life, Hartley’s most profound goal as an artist was to penetrate the exterior and probe the depth dimension—his self-determined brand of nativeness as he explored the interior and coast of Maine. He acknowledged more than once that he felt guided to places like Corea where people and nature, while regionally specific, drew forth the deeper, spiritual insights that had always been close to his heart. At home both geographically and emotionally, he arrived also at his own sense of religion, captured symbolically in Church by the Barrens. “You don’t have to hold religious viewpoints," he observed, “to understand...that to live is to keep the ‘center of activity’ open so that life can pour in and through one’s nature – imbibing the pure substance which is the leaven itself of artistic expression.”[iv] For Hartley, this leaven was not so much the rocks and trees or wild ocean of a local place, but their underlying substance—the quality of life and depth dimension the artist discovers in his subject and conveys to his viewer.
[i] In his exhibition catalogue, Marsden Hartley and Nova Scotia (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery and the Pres of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1987), Gerald Ferguson notes (p. 144) that Church on the Moors cannot be located site-specific but is a “subjective interpretation” based on St. Paul’s United Church of Blue Rocks.
[ii] Hartley related his discovery of the church in Prospect Harbor and his fascination with the local topographical features of barrens, bogs and heaths in a letter to Adelaide Kuntz, 4 September 1940, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature, Marsden Hartley Collection, MSS 578, Box 11 (YCAL).
[iii] Letter to Kuntz, 13 October 1940, YCAL MSS 578, Box 11 and letter to Robert McIntyre (Macbeth Gallery), 13 October 1940, Archives of American Art, Washington D.C., Macbeth Gallery Records, Series 1.1, Box 43.
[iv] Hartley to his niece, Norma Berger, April 16, 1940, from New York City (Hartley Collection, YCAL).