Marsden Hartley (1877 – 1943), “Madawaska – Acadian Light — Heavy,” 1940, Oil on board, 40 x 30 inches. Collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR
Marsden Hartley (1877 – 1943), “Madawaska – Acadian Light — Heavy,” 1940, Oil on board,

40 x 30 inches. Collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR
Born in Lewiston, Maine, in 1877 into a working-class family, Edmund Hartley (he adopted his stepmother's family name, Marsden, in adulthood) knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist. Hartley found himself isolated and unhappy as a boy, both by reason of difficult family circumstances including his mother's death when he was just eight years old, and, as he grew older, as a homosexual living during a fundamentally repressive era in a small New England manufacturing town. Hartley's identity as a gay man coming of age at the turn of a new, transformative century was present in his art from the outset, and often manifested itself through aesthetic inventiveness, independence and introspection.

As a young artist, Hartley found social acceptance and an exhilarating sense of creative freedom in urban centers including New York, Paris and, especially, Berlin and became a leading member of the American avant-garde. In his later years, Hartley returned to his native Maine and began producing paintings that are among his most deeply personal and expressive. The 1940 canvas "Madawaska - Acadian Light - Heavy" openly confirms what the artist had theretofore only voiced indirectly regarding his "desirous heart." It is one of two very similar versions of the subject - a young boxer from the town of Madawaska, Maine, in the St. John River Valley, on the border between Maine and French Canada. These paintings reveal Hartley's full-blooded embrace of homosexual desires that up to this point had remained hidden in stylized imagery, encoded in mystical symbols, or subsumed in images of the heaving rhythms of nature.

Thought to be the earlier of the two versions, the painting at Crystal Bridges is comparatively chaste, the figure's stance slightly less frontal and the forms broader, with less closely modeled musculature. The unidentified boxer's neck is a cylindrical, stump-like slab rising out of the mountainous, triangular deltoids of his neck, a body shaped by and representative of a harsh, northern environment where until recently even indoor water was frozen for more than half the year and wood splitting is still a survival skill and daily necessity. The athlete's body is backlit and partially in shadow; he is placed against a deep, blood-red ground. He averts his gaze from the viewer (and from the artist?). The portrait conveys a psychological tension that is immediate and direct, true to the blunt grace of the subject, as well as an affecting distance, a quality of incipience and possibility. In late-career images of the idealized male form such as this one, Hartley found a vehicle to effectively carry his cumulative sense of self - of consolation and acceptance, of desire and regret - into paintings as brutally honest as they are from the heart.

Note: The other version of Madawaska, which is identically titled, the same size, and also dated 1940, is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.