All About the Details

Examining Hartley's Techniques and Materials with the Met Conservators

A special collaboration between the Colby College Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Marsden Hartley’s Maine enabled an in-depth study of works by the artist that have never before been brought together for analysis. A year and a half in advance of the show’s opening, paintings and drawings from both collections were closely examined and studied by The Met’s conservators Isabelle Duvernois and Rachel Mustalish using X-radiography and infrared reflectography in their state-of-the-art-facilities. They published their findings in an essay in the exhibition catalogue, entitled “‘The Livingness of Appearances’: Materials and Techniques of Marsden Hartley in Maine.” Assistant for Special Projects Anna Fan spoke with them about their work.

Anna Fan (AF): Preparing for the show, the two of you spent a lot of quality time with the Colby and Met works. What are some of the best discoveries you made?

Isabelle Duvernois (ID): We noticed Hartley clearly preferred hard supports as opposed to the yielding surface of a canvas. He often worked on a material called academy board, which is a cheap commercially-prepared paperboard, or masonite. He also very much preferred colored grounds, rather than painting on the usual white gessoed surface, and especially liked brown as a middle tone, which masonite boards would provide. A lot of that brown support shows through—he is using it like a color in the composition, but you really have to look closely to understand that you’re not seeing paint, you’re seeing him utilizing the tone of the support.

Rachel Mustalish (RM): Similarly, in the pastel drawing of Church at Corea, he uses a light tan support and then black and white pastel to produce the highlights and shadows of the image. I’m a paper conservator, so it was really great to look at all these pieces together with a paintings conservator. We observed that his stroke or his gesture was very consistent, regardless of whether he was working with graphite and paper or paintbrushes on academy board.

ID: We write about the tooling of his paint layer; we say he’s “drawing with paint,” really scratching and scoring. He’s using a palette knife and he’s using the back of the brush, and he’s drawing lines into the paint layer, very much like his drawing style with pencil, charcoal, and pastel. In Church at Head Tide in Colby’s collection, he is able to achieve three dimensions by using a whole array of scoring, drawing, and letting the charcoal drawing show through the paint layer. Also in terms of tooling, it was kind of wonderful to see his thumb fingerprint in the clouds in Colby’s painting, City Point, Vinalhaven! We actually weren’t looking at the work under the microscope, so it was a nice little discovery.

RM: And that also stresses the tactility he found about his materials.


(Left) Church at Head Tide, Maine, 1938. Oil on commercially prepared paperboard (academy board), 28 1/8 x 22 1/8 in. (71.4 x 56.2 cm). Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Bequest of Adelaide Moise. (Right) Detail of Colby’s Church at Head Tide showing Hartley “drawing with paint.” Note the tooling of the paint, and even the charcoal traces.

AF: That’s so interesting—it’s as if he is right there in the room with you! Now if these were the discoveries you made right off the bat with the Colby and Met works, did you discover anything new when the loans arrived?

ID: Unfortunately, we don’t really have the quality time to spend with the loans the way we do with the works that have been with us for a year or so. However, there was one thing that I did discover while doing the condition checks for the show: in the early large landscapes, I found some thumbtack holes in the four corners of the paintings. What it said is that he obviously did not stretch the canvases, but he instead had them pinned probably onto a hard support.

RM: Yes, that’s really the way he likes to work—he doesn’t like any give, whether he’s using a brush or a pastel or a palette knife, he wants to have his material hit something hard for resistance. You mentioned seeing “right off the bat”; as conservators, we do spend a lot of time looking, of course, looking for aspects of their technique and how it connects to other pieces, but we’re also using a lifetime of knowledge to make connections between the time period in which the artist is working, the materials that were available, as well as some analytical techniques and various types of imaging. The pieces that come in, while we can examine them, we don’t have nearly the same time and tools with which to do so.

ID: We can’t see the back, we can’t turn them around, and often they are glazed, so we have a little less access to the surface.

RM: One of the things that I thought was interesting in a piece that I saw that wasn’t in the show was a characteristic that we found in our pieces as well—he had this scored backing on the masonite, and one painting actually shows through to the front, which is such an interesting, and I think unintentional, effect. You could sort of tell even from the front that he used this, and once he liked a material he seemed to use it over and over and over.

AF: Speaking of his artistic techniques and preferences, in what ways do you think Hartley was an innovative painter, and what evidence of that do you find in his work?

ID: I would argue that it’s not so much innovative as it is looking back and understanding what the Old Masters were doing. If you look at Old Masters’ drawings and paintings, utilizing a colored or toned ground is a common technique.

RM: However, he chose to use masonite and other modern commercial products that you could buy in an art supplies store, so while he always remembered traditional techniques, he utilized them with his modern materials.

ID: Exactly. He had a very traditional understanding and training, but utilized very modern materials and kind of transferred those centuries-long traditions into his world.

AF: I see—his way of owning those techniques. Can you speak to some of the ways in which his techniques evolved over the span of his career, or point out some similarities and differences that you may have noticed in early works versus late works, those created in Maine versus outside of it?

ID and RM: Oh yes, the size.

ID: The size is really striking, he obviously liked working with small formats. Financial reasons are at play here, but small formats also provided a more intimate relationship.

RM: His early work was done in a square format, which is interesting because when you think about landscapes you often think of a rectangular format. He did do that in his later works, but in his earlier pictures, that was what he was thinking about. They were visually very vertical, in a way, and those early paintings (Autumn Color, Maine Landscape) that are twelve by twelve inches, they’re an unusual format, one could argue.

ID: There is also a kind of consistency in his paint application. While he obviously traveled everywhere and painted quite an extensive and diverse range of subjects, he did the wartime paintings, he did the New Mexico paintings, he did so many things in between, but all in all, when you look back at the early works and then look at the late works, there is clearly a continuous technique in his handling of the paint.


(Left) Maine Landscape, 1908. Oil on commercially prepared paperboard (academy board), 12 x 12 in. (30.48 x 30.48 cm). Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Gift of the Alex Katz Foundation. (Right) Photomicrograph of Colby’s Maine Landscape showing the imprimatura layer underneath brushstrokes, illustrating how Hartley favored toned grounds.

RM: The strong outlines that you see in his later works became heavier and more emphasized. You see it in Lobster Fishermen, you see it in his churches; these outlines are less pronounced in his earlier works.

ID: Which makes sense when you look at any artist in general, at the end of their careers. Everything becomes so much more distilled and sometimes as a result they spend less time on details. They really go for very broad, minimal strokes, and they achieve exactly the same but they’re more trained. I think because Hartley mastered his materials so well, he was able to really distill it to a level where he doesn’t need to add much.

RM: And he had been looking at Maine and these places in Maine for decades, and I think they really became very internalized. He still painted from vistas and viewpoints and being outside, but you can see the multiple sketchbooks and drawings and practices of say, Mount Katahdin; he looked at this a lot, and a lot of it became internalized.

ID: That’s right, he’s not a plein air painter; everything was done indoors, so he had this whole visual lexicon in his mind, and he was able to use this anywhere he was. Really interesting, you know—he didn’t need to be there physically.

AF: Is it safe to call these landscapes of the mind?

ID: I’m not so sure I would say that. He certainly thinks a lot about it, but I wouldn’t call it that because they’re very anchored to Mount Katahdin, very specific to the locale. He went there many times; as Rachel says, he internalized it, so he owned it, in other words.

RM: That goes well to say he’s the painter from Maine, that it is a part of him that is instilled in his being, because of the incredible amount of time that he spent there. It’s not fictional in any way.

ID: It’s not like he did it as a travelogue, it’s more like what Cézanne was doing. Hartley had a lot of admiration for Cézanne, who was doing something very similar with the Mont Sainte-Victoire. So, yes, it is his version of the mountain, but it is still based on the reality and the presence and location of the mountain and everything about it.

AF: That makes sense. Living here in Maine with autumn approaching, whenever I look at those paintings, that sense of nostalgia really comes through.

ID: Absolutely. I think that’s why the paintings are so resonant to most painters. Everyone really relates to the mood, the colors. It’s not just a landscape, you know— there’s a lot more to it.

RM: He’s very good at capturing, even if it’s in a stylized way, the nuance of the subject, whether it’s a fisherman or a knotted rope, and that’s true of his landscapes as well. For example, with his depictions of the crashing waves, this is reflected in his technique and materials; they receive his incredible attention to layers and textures, and your eye sees the color under the color and responds to the way the light bounces off the tooled surfaces or absorbs into the fluffy pastel. That’s part of his genius—his ability to give it so much that you almost don’t know what you’re seeing until you start to dissect the way that it’s made from the materials.


Marsden Hartley’s Maine is organized by the Colby College Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is made possible by the Henry Luce Foundation, Bank of America, Betsy Cohen and Edward Cohen/Aretê Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Everett P. and Florence H. Turner Exhibition Fund.

A grant from the Wyeth Foundation for American Art has supported the Colby College Museum of Art’s scholarly contributions to the exhibition catalogue published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Charles Butt, and Laura and Robert W. Stone.


Photomicrographs courtesy of the Department of Paintings Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.