In September 1935 Hartley was in southern Nova Scotia seeking a less expensive locale than Gloucester, Massachusetts, in which to paint. There he met the Masons, a family of fishermen who lived on a rugged island off Blue Rocks. He became immediately attracted to the two Mason brothers, Alty and Donny, and arranged to live with the Masons during his trips north. For the first time since the death of his mother in 1885, Hartley felt he was part of a close-knit family. He became especially attached to Alty, admiring his youth, physical power, and beauty, and may have become his lover. Hartley’s newfound happiness was shattered on September 19, 1936, when the two brothers and their cousin drowned at sea in a violent rainstorm. From this experience arose a series of important figure paintings of great emotional intensity. From the beginning of his association with the Masons, Hartley conceived of the family’s difficult, yet pious life as one touched by Christian martyrdom. Not surprisingly the tragedy experienced by the family inspired him to create symbolic paintings with Christian overtones. In Fishermen’s Last Supper, 1938 (private collection), Hartley arranged the Mason family along a table in the manner of images of the Last Supper, indicating the sons who would die by placing a star over their heads, an allusion to the brothers Castor and Pollux in Greek myth, who are represented with such stars as a good omen for ships. Also symbolic is The Lost Felice, with its three figures-the two dead brothers and their sister in the center. While it would have been natural for Hartley to depict fishermen wearing rain slickers and holding fish, he infused the image with spiritual significance by painting halos over their heads. He modified the traditional Man of Sorrows image to express the Mason family’s personal tragedy. The sister, Alice Mason, replaces the figure of a suffering Christ, while the two dead brothers replace the usual supporting angels. In other paintings relating to the Mason family Hartley depicted the two brothers with square faces and bushy hair. In The Lost Felice the two men have lost their individuality, their faces are masklike, and they have become universal symbols of death. Their sister’s face is etched with the pain of her double loss. The fish as symbols of the instrument of the brothers’ death, the sea, as well as of Christ are crucial to the reading of the painting; in a related sketch of two fishermen and a woman, c. 1938-39 (Treat Gallery, Bates College, Lewiston, Maine), the fish are omitted. The strict, hieratic representation of the three figures accords with medieval religious paintings but is also typical of Hartley’s portraits during this period. Also characteristic of the artist in the 1930s is the dark palette, here limited mostly to colors associated with death: shades of blue-black and blood-red for the faces and hands of the men and fish in the bowl. Hartley drew the figures in a primitive manner, which conveys what he perceived as the raw vigor of the Mason family. For this reason Hartley referred to his figure paintings of the Mason family as archaic portraits. The stark, sonorous palette and rawness of the figure types underscore not only the ruggedness of the Nova Scotian fishermen’s life but also the pain that Hartley and the Mason family suffered as a result of the brothers’ deaths. The title no doubt refers to this lost happiness. In his essay "Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy," in which he recounted his friendship with the Mason family and the boating disaster, Hartley gave the name Marguerite Felice to the sister. The French name Felice derives from the Latin word for happiness, felicita. Although an article in Life magazine in 1950 reported that Hartley had said the central figure was the brothers’ mother, the parallel between the painting’s title and the name of the character in his essay confirms the identification of the woman in The Lost Felice as their sister. According to Hartley, Alice Mason was built like a man, extremely devoted to her family, and always involved in domestic chores to make their lives happier. The painting was originally intended for a seaman’s bethel in the far north that Hartley planned but never realized. The 1938 version of Fishermen’s Last Supper was actually the cartoon for a proposed mural in the chapel. As Henry Hopkins has noted, The Lost Felice would have been a fitting altarpiece for that bethel.More...
Hartley was one of the most original of America’s early modernist painters. His career embodied constant change, reflected in his numerous places of residence as well as in his wide-ranging artistic experimentation. His restlessness was rooted in a longing for spiritual contentment. It was not until the end of his life that Hartley achieved some satisfaction from his paintings, in particular the “archaic portraits,” of which The Lost Felice is the most significant. These portraits, from the late 1930s and early 1940s, were Hartley’s first turn to figure painting, a genre he had always avoided. In 1935 Hartley formed a deep friendship with a Nova Scotia fishing family by the name of Mason. Greatly impressed by their vigor and faith, he became especially close to the sons, Alty and Donny, and may have become the former’s lover. This interlude ended with the sons’ death at sea. The Lost Felice is Hartley’s elegy to the family. The title refers to a loss of felicity, or happiness. The brothers are depicted in dark blue oilskins, their faces and hands blood red. Standing between them is their sister Alice. The composition is similar to the Man of Sorrows imagery in medieval religious painting. The inclusion of fish refers to the family’s occupation was well as to Christ. Hartley intended his numerous portraits of the Mason family to decorate a seamen’s memorial chapel; The Lost Felice would have been an appropriate altarpiece. This is a typical Hartley frame, preferred by the artist because of its bold yet simplified pattern. A light whitewash was added to the machine-carved surface.More...
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