Artists can show strong feelings in their art by the way they use colors and exaggerate and distort shapes. Students will discuss how Hartley’s life experiences, and the world around him, influenced his art process, to further understand “expressive” art.
Time Alloted45 Minutes
State Content Standards
English / Language Arts Content Standards
Grade 3, 3.1 Distinguish common forms of literature (e.g. poetry, drama, fiction, nonfiction)
Grade 5, 3.1 Identify and analyze the characteristics of poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction and explain the appropriateness of the literary forms chosen by an author for a specific purpose.
Grade 6, 3.4 Define how tone or meaning is conveyed in poetry through word choice, figurative language, sentence structure, line length, punctuation, rhythm, repetition, and rhyme.
Grade 7, 1.1 Identify idioms, analogies, metaphors, and similes in prose and poetry.
Teacher: Reproduction or projected image of “Fisherman’s Family”
Born in 1877, Marsden Hartley had a very lonely childhood. He once said, “I lived an entirely imaginative life of my own” (May, 1999). A painter, as well as a poet, essayist and a writer, Hartley found creative ways to express himself and is regarded as one of the foremost American painters of the first half of the 20th century.
Artists of the early twentieth century wanted to show feelings and emotions in their art. In France artists who wished to work with their feelings were called “Wild Beasts” and the art style was termed Fauvism. In Germany a similar group of artists developed a movement known as German Expressionism. Artists using these styles emphasized the expression of innermost feelings. They ignored the contemporary rules of art, experimenting instead with abstracted figures and objects, and bold, saturated colors. In Fisherman’s Family Hartley simplified figures and used color to express his feelings.
In the summers and falls of 1935 and 1936 Marsden Hartley discovered Nova Scotia. There he boarded with the Mason family, a French Canadian fishing family, who lived on the island of East Point across from Blue Rocks. It was a remote setting. From this time came a group of powerful “archaic portraits,” painted from memory by Hartley in 1938 and 1939.
As one of the artists exhibited by Gallery 291, Hartley was viewed as part of the Early American Modern Art movement, spearheaded by Alfred Stieglitz. It was Stieglitz who introduced to the American public the work of such European Modernists and their predecessors as Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Rodin. Hartley was in his late 50s when he lived with the Mason family, and he didn’t paint Fisherman’s Family until many years later.
Why is this significant?
American art at the turn of the century was enthralled with Impressionism, at a time when European artists had moved on and were experimenting with radically new ideas. Stieglitz’ Gallery 291 brought these new European ideas to American artists, helped motivate them to experiment with these new ideas and promoted the art of those Americans artists who did like Hartley, O’Keeffe, Demuth and Dove.
Make a connection:
New ideas and experiences open our minds and change the way we see the world. When computers were first introduced, no one had even thought of playing games online --- now we can play games with someone across the world from us via computers. What new ideas or experiences have changed the way you see the world?
Artwork: Fisherman’s Family
Artist: Marsden Hartley
Date of Work: 1940’s
Media: Oil on canvas
Begin by looking carefully at the reproduction or the projected image. Ask:
• What do you see?
• What do you think might be the relationship of the people in this painting?
• What types of colors has the artist selected for the artwork?
• Why do you think the artist choose to use these colors?
• Are all the figures the same size?
• Why did the artist make the men standing in the back larger than the people on the couch?
• What expressions do the people have on their faces?
• What is the feeling being conveyed?
• What do you think the artist is communicating by the placement of the figures? Or the figural details (or lack of figural details)?
• What would the artist have to change, to make the mood lighter?
Congratulate the students on discovering the artist’s many visual clues. Explain that the American artist Marsden Hartley, who lived in the early 1900’s, created this image. This image is called Fisherman’s Family, and is set in the living room of the Mason family, whose two sons and a nephew were tragically drowned in a fishing accident in Nova Scotia in 1936. Hartley was very close to the sons and was emotionally devastated by their deaths. Discuss student observations.
Let students know Hartley was a painter, as well as a poet, essayist and a writer.
Introduce the idea of poetry as an appropriate form of written description for an artwork - in this case, Hartley’s Fisherman’s Family. Present the format for the poetic response, most appropriate for the grade level: either Acrostic poem, Cinquain stanza or Haiku. Encourage students to express their responses to what they see, feel, and know about the artwork.
Working within small groups, students will generate a list of one-word responses to Fisherman’s Family based on descriptions, ideas and/or feeling. Use the Poetic Response – Brainstorming Worksheet to document the group’s work.
Working in pairs or small groups, students will compose at least one Acrostic, Cinquain stanza or Haiku (again depending on the grade level of the students) within an assigned time period. Use the worksheet for the specific form for their poem.
Students will share their poems in the class.
See below for worksheets for the above lesson.
Poetic Response – Brainstorming Worksheet
Develop a list of one-word responses to Fisherman’s Family based on descriptions, ideas and/or feelings. Use this list to develop a specific poetic form.
Worksheet for Acrostic Poem
Worksheet for Cinquain Stanza
An important Noun
Two important Adjectives
Three Gerunds (Verbs ending in “ing”)
An important Four-Word Phrase (A Word Picture)
A Synonym for the first Noun
_____________________ _____________________ ___________________
________________ _______________ ________________ _______________
Worksheet for Haiku Poems
Five Syllables _____________________________________________________
Seven Syllables ___________________________________________________
Five Syllables _____________________________________________________
Edmund Hartley had a difficult childhood. Born in 1877 to English immigrants, he grew up in Lewiston, a bustling mill town in Maine filled with Canadian immigrants. At the age of eight, his mother died and four years later his father moved to Ohio with his new wife, leaving his son with an older sister. Impoverished and essentially on his own, Hartley was forced to leave school to work in a shoe factory.
In 1893, he did rejoin his father and sisters in Cleveland, Ohio, and this is when the young Hartley began to take art lessons. Later in 1899, he moved to New York and enrolled in the Chase School and attended the National Academy of Design in New York. At the age of 29 he changed his first name from Edmund to Marsden, his stepmother’s maiden name.
Spending most summers in Maine, Hartley began painting impressionist renderings of the mountains in Maine. It was these paintings that garnered the attention of photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz in 1909 and pulled him into Stieglitz’s circle of artists, which included Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin and photographer Paul Strand. Stieglitz gave Hartley his own show at the renowned 291 Gallery on Fifth Avenue and his career really took off at that point.
From 1912 – 1915 Hartley lived in Berlin, Germany, where he painted abstractions based on militaristic and mystical themes. Soon he was using bright colors like those in the paintings of Matisse and the simplified forms of Cezanne and Picasso. Actually moving to Europe in the 1920s, Hartley soon invented his own brand of abstraction. His emblematic compositions broke new ground and attracted attention from Gertrude Stein, as well as from significant European vanguard artists.
Hartley was an inveterate traveler, seeking inspiration in new places and experiences. Even before settling in Europe in the 1920s, he had spent time in Provincetown, MA and in Bermuda with Charles Demuth. He also spent time in New Mexico in 1918 and 1919 and then after his time in Europe, he created some of his most original work in Dogtown, MA and then went to Mexico on a Guggenheim travel grant. He was back in New York in 1934 and then in Nova Scotia in 1934 and 1935. In 1937 he returned to live the remainder of his life in Maine, where he portrayed heroic mountains, vernacular architecture and rugged men, achieving during those final years new heights of powerful expression that some consider his best work.
By just about any measure, Hartley led a troubled, conflicted life. He was a gay man in a society that frowned on homosexuality, an artist drawn to abstraction when such work was largely shunned by the public, a man susceptible to powerful swings of mood and capable of ever-changing artistic styles.
Nevertheless, Hartley is considered one the foremost American painters of the first half of the 20th century and was also a fine poet, essayist and writer.
Hartley and Novia Scotia:
During the summers and falls of 1935 and 1936, a chronically ill and depressed Hartley spent time in Nova Scotia. Hartley first went to Lunenberg, a southern Nova Scotia town but found it unappealing. On the advice of a cab driver, he went up the coast to the small fishing community of Blue Rocks and took a room there. “The town’s archaic severity and wildness” (Haskell, 1980) immediately attracted Hartley. A couple of days after Hartley’s arrival, he met Mrs. Francis Mason, a neighbor from a small offshore island who came to his boardinghouse. That evening he met her husband and one of her sons Alty. A few days later Alty invited Hartley to spend time with him and his friends. After meeting the second son Donny, Hartley asked if he could board with the family on the island. He moved into the Mason home where he paid seven dollars a week for room and board.
Although Hartley only stayed with the Masons for six weeks, they had a profound effect on him. Included in the Mason family were two daughters as well as Alty and Donny. For the first time since his mother had died, Hartley felt like part of a family. From this newfound sense of love and security, Hartley was rejuvenated. Hartley particularly respected and admired the father, whom he described as “one of the greatest men I have ever known.” The simplicity and piety of these people inspired Hartley, although he would not translate these feeling into paintings for over a year.
The fall of 1936 brought tragedy to Hartley’s idyllic time with the Masons. On September 19, Donny and his cousin Allan went to Lunenberg to meet Alty. That evening a severe North Atlantic storm swept the area. By the following morning the storm was over, but the three men had not returned. A search party discovered their boat twenty miles down the coast but the bodies were not located for nearly two weeks. The drowning of the three men devastated the family, and in an attempt to grasp onto some kind of continuity, they asked Hartley to remain with them until December. From this tragedy came a series of intense and emotional paintings by Hartley.
Title and date: Fisherman’s Family
Artist and dates: Marsden Hartley (early 1940’s)
In Fisherman’s Family three large shadowy figures stand behind two seated figures with gray and gray/blue faces. The large chests and spiked hair of the large shadowy figures in the background are concrete physical characteristics of Alty and Donny and thus, the three shadowy figures represent Alty, Donny and their cousin Allan. The two seated figures in the foreground may refer to the parents who were devastated by the tragedy. The colors evoke the feelings of tragedy and melancholy. The simplified forms are unmodeled, raw and immediate and testify to the elemental sorrow felt by both Hartley and the family. Hartley abandoned any hint of refinement in favor of the emotional content of his painting. The space is very flat in the formal, frontal presentation. The composition is totally lacking in movement and is reminiscent of timeless Byzantine icons.
According to Hartley biographer Barbara Haskell, Hartley’s vision was not naturalistic in order to depict “religious faith and renewal in contemporary terms.” Hartley’s severe flat design and simplified forms create contemporary icons. Along with this “primitivism,” the rich, somber colors and black delineated faces, this painting is similar to Georges Rouault’s religious paintings to which Hartley, according to Haskell, was particularly drawn at this period in his life.
The paintings and portraits which Hartley created, stimulated by the tragedy, truly give a vivid account of how Hartley felt. He first painted a number of dark sea studies which portrayed the violence and loneliness of the sea. At this time he studied and wrote two articles about the American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder, whose dark marine landscapes explore the relationship between man and nature. In the summer of 1938 Hartley created his “Archaic Portraits” which explored his feelings about the Mason family. To protect the family, Hartley gave the family members French-Canadian names both in the paintings and in the unpublished story he wrote, “Cleophas and His Own.” Hartley had been so moved by the “piety and love expressed at family dinners,” that he now painted an artwork titled Fishermen’s Last Supper.
Shields, Scott A. “ American Revolutions: The other side of Modern, 1900-1945, November 9, 2006
May, Stephen “Marsden Hartley, American Modern at the Portland Museum of Art, April, 1999
Levin, Gail “Marsden Hartley, Volk Artist” August 7, 2005
Kornhauser, Elizabeth Mankin. “Marsden Hartley (1877 – 1943),” American Art Review, Vol. XV No. 6 2003, pgs. 164 – 175.
Barbara Haskell. Marsden Hartley, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980.