Hudson Walker Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts, circa 1940
MacBeth Gallery, New York
Paul Rosenberg & Co., New York
Wright Ludington, Santa Barbara, California (acquired from the above)
The Downtown Gallery, New York
We are grateful to Gail Scott for preparing the following essay. Ms. Scott, a leading Hartley scholar, is the author of the monograph Marsden Hartley (New York, Abbeville Press, 1998) and the editor of collections of his poetry and essays on art.
In 1938, towards the end of a lifetime of predominately landscape and still life painting, Marsden Hartley produced a number of inventive figure paintings. Most are portraits or figure groups, but among the most intriguing and evocative are two, that isolate human arms and hands: Knotting Rope depicting a pair of thick, muscular hands tying a knot in a hefty boat line in the action of tying a knot, and Hands (private collection) with hands folded in a gesture of prayer.
The seminal experience that sparked Hartley's late interest in the human figure was no doubt the two seasons in 1935 and 1936 during which he lived with Francis Mason and his family in Nova Scotia (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, illustrated). They were, he extolled, "the most amazing family of men & women the like of which I have never in my life seen—veritable rocks of Gibraltar in appearance, the very salt of salt." Hartley was with the family in November of 1936 when, tragically, Francis Mason's two giantesque sons, Alty and Donny, were drowned during a hurricane. Eventually, Hartley's encounter with the family and the drowning accident resulted in an outpouring of work, including poignant poetry, a book manuscript, Cleophas and His Own, and series of memorial portraits of the family members and the famous Fishermen's Last Supper (Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY, Purchase).
Knotting Rope is another kind of tribute to the Nova Scotia family who remained larger than life in Hartley's memory. The Masons were fishermen and boat builders and mechanics, and Hartley delighted in watching them at work mending their nets, riding with them in their dories and speedboats, or hanging about at the local blacksmith's shop with its "coils and coils of rope, lovely smell of tar and shavings--& the grey light shining through windows on carpenters tools and odd objects and bottles." As evident in the photograph and the portraits Hartley did of the family members, they all had large, powerful hands, hands that do hard work. But the hands in Knotting Rope are those of Francis Mason or Cleophas, the fictitious name Hartley assigned to him, whose "body is as hard as the rocks and his hands being huge look as if they could take trees in twos and twist them together like rope."
With its disembodied forearm and hands set against a deep black ground, Knotting Rope lies in an imaginary zone halfway between the figurative and still life—a genre that distinguishes Hartley's late painting style. Like similar works from these years (Black Duck, White Sea Horse), or the numerous shell and rope still lifes, the painting is a distillation of the observed, marked by the kind of evocative simplification that conveys immensity. "Simplification," Hartley, wrote, "is not easy," adding that it was a quality the Masons taught him with "their profoundly simple and humble behavior concerning all things." Two aspects of this work define its simplicity: first, the dark, almost monochromatic palette—restricted to the black background, shades of grey with white highlights that give definition to the rope and its bristly texture, and the red-brown of the sun-tanned, swarthy flesh; and second, the fact that the figurative elements (hands and rope) are starkly isolated, devoid of context or setting, despite the implied action of knotting—a compositional devise reinforced by the fact that the rope becomes a framing element along the lower and left. These inventions move the painting towards abstraction, underscored by the fact that Knotting Rope, as well as other still life paintings from this period, can be viewed either vertically, as presented here, or horizontally, as it was hung when first exhibited at the Hudson Walker Gallery in New York in 1940 and illustrated in reviews of the time. In Knotting Rope Hartley achieves a new kind of figurative abstraction that his public audience was slow to appreciate but that emerging generations of artists (Phillip Guston, Alex Katz) greatly admired and emulated.
 Letter to Adelaide Kuntz from Eastern Points, Nova Scotia, November 4, 1935 (Archives of American Art).
 Letter to Adelaide Kuntz from Eastern Points, Nova Scotia, November 6, 1935 (Archives of American Art).
 Hartley, Cleophas and His Own in Marsden Hartley and Nova Scotia, ed. Gerald Ferguson. Halifax, NS: Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, 1987, p. 94.
 Letter to Elizabeth McCausland, 1939, Elizabeth McCausland Papers, Archives of American Art.
 Elizabeth McCausland's, "Marsden Hartley Shows His Recent Paintings," The Springfield Republican, March 17, 1940, 6E. Knotting Rope is illustrated in horizontal orientation with the hands to the right.
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