Long-Unseen Marsden Hartley Painting Resurfaces After Decades in Bank Vault

Last exhibited over 40 years ago, a 1936 painting by American modernist Marsden Hartley recently resurfaced after it was found in a bank vault where a collector had stored it for safekeeping, according to a report in the Portland Press Herald.

The unnamed collector recently passed away, and the work, titled Friend Against the Wind (1936), had been stored at Key Bank in downtown Portland, Maine. The collector had moved it there out of fear that the painting might be stolen from his home in Windham, a town about 20 minutes outside Portland. The collector’s lawyer contacted art historian Gail Scott, who is working on a catalogue raisonné on Hartley with the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine, which is home to the Hartley Memorial Collection donated to the institution by the artist’s heirs.

Hartley’s oeuvre is wide-ranging, comprising of landscapes, still lifes, and portraits of men in a variety of styles. He is best-known for his expressionistic, collage-like still lifes that are meant to serve as portraits, like his famed 1914 painting Portrait of a German Officer, which shows the various military regalia of Karl von Freyburg, Hartley’s lover who was killed during World War I.

Measuring 17 inches by 12 inches, Friend Against the Wind shows a gold communion chalice with two Eucharist hosts rising above it in what appears a blue flame. Set against a reddish-brown background and sitting on a blue table, the piece is a late-career work by Hartley, who died in Maine in 1943, and was meant to commemorate Canadian friends of the artist who had drowned during a hurricane.

Records show that it has only been exhibited two times: first at the American Place Gallery in New York in 1936 shortly after its creation and then, in 1980, at the Barridoff Galleries in Portland. The catalogue for 1987 survey of Hartley’s work in Nova Scotia included a black-and-white photograph of the painting, though it was not included in the show; it was attributed to being under the ownership of a collector in Maine.

Scott described the discovery as “a eureka moment” to the Press Herald, as it had been unclear whether the work had survived. As part of her research for the catalogue raisonné, Scott attempted to make contact with the collector but had been unsuccessful and marked the status of Friend Against the Wind as “unknown.” As it turned out, her letter inquiring about the painting was delivered three days after the collector passed away.

As part of the creation of the catalogue raisonné through the Marsden Hartley Legacy Project, Scott has been attempting to conduct research into the 1,650-some paintings and works on paper that Hartley created during his life, which include around 240 pieces whose whereabouts are also currently unknown.

In an interview with the Press Herald, William Low, a curator at the Bates Museum, said of the project, “The hunt is ongoing. There is still a lot of slogging to do, but there are moments of revelation that are exciting for [Gail Scott]. That is what she lives for.”

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