In June 2018, I wrote about an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia that featured a trio of artists who had depicted one quiet corner of Nova Scotia: Blue Rocks, Lunenburg County. It was a remarkable tripartite conversation among the artists (Marsden Hartley, Gerald Ferguson and John Hartman) taking place entirely in their work.
This fall, one of those artists, Marsden Hartley, is the subject of the largest ever retrospective exhibition of his work in Europe, and the first in 60 years.
The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen has mounted The Earth is All I know of Wonder, which features over 140 paintings and drawings by Hartley, considered by many to be one of the most important American painters of the first half of the 20th century.
Curator Mathia Ussing Seeberg told me that the Hartley project was an important one for his museum. “There’s a disconnect in our understanding of American art,” he said, explaining that while figures from the post-war American scene were familiar to the Danish audience, the pre-war figures were virtually unknown.
Four and half years ago, attending the opening of the new building for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, he saw two 1917 paintings by Hartley, created while living in Berlin. “I was completely overwhelmed,” he told me, “by the paintings and by my ignorance.”
Gerald Ferguson would have understood Seeberg’s reaction. While the American-born painter had been aware of Hartley’s career in Berlin and later in Maine, it wasn’t until he came to Nova Scotia to teach art and art history at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design that he learned about Hartley’s time on Eastern Point Island in Blue Rocks.
He learned this from Chris Huntington, with whom Ferguson was involved in collecting and exhibiting Nova Scotia Folk Art. Huntington, another American painter, had been collecting Hartley’s work since the late ’60s and was fully aware of Hartley’s trips to Lunenburg County. Ferguson went on to curate an exhibition of Hartley’s Nova Scotia work and to edit what Seeberg credits as the best book on Hartley, Marsden Hartley in Nova Scotia.
Seeberg’s project took two and half years to realize, with all of the work coming from public and private collections in the United States. He still sounds surprised at how successful they were in securing loans. “We got almost everything we wanted,” he said, though it took work. “I’m not saying it was easy; we had to be persistent.”
Hartley’s time in Nova Scotia was seminal: “It’s clear that personal crises in his life led to exciting new directions,” Seeberg says. “When he was staying with the Mason family in Eastern Point, he felt that he had found a family who were living his beliefs.”
The Mason’s two sons and their cousin died in a storm returning to the island from the mainland. “When the two boys died it provoked him, eventually, to do something he had never done before: to start figure painting,” Seeberg pauses. “It was an incredibly important time.”
One Hartley work from that time is in the collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, called Stormy Sea #2. The Earth is All I Know of Wonder is on view at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen until January 19, 2020.