I Miss Marsden Hartley’s Mountain Lake—Autumn

The Phillips Collection galleries have been dark and empty and our staff and visitors have been missing our beloved collection. In this series we will highlight artworks that the Phillips staff have really been missing lately. Media Relations Manager Hayley Barton on why she misses Marsden Hartley’s Mountain Lake—Autumn (c. 1910).

Marsden Hartley, Mountain Lake—Autumn, c. 1910, Oil on academy board 12 x 12 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Rockwell Kent, 1926

The first time I saw a painting by Marsden Hartley, I was an intern at the Bates College Museum of Art, in Lewiston, Maine, home for the summer to escape the heat of my college town, in Charleston, South Carolina. How fitting to see my first Hartley in the town of both his birthplace and my own. A few years later I found myself at The Phillips Collection, having recently moved to Washington, DC (again, to escape the heat of Charleston only to find myself in a swamp . . . womp). I turned the corner into a parlor in the historic Phillips House and found myself transported home momentarily, looking at a painting by Marsden Hartley.

When you look at Mountain Lake—Autumn, you can almost feel the crisp breeze and smell the sun-warmed leaves and damp ground. It is a spectacular painting of a mountain and a lake, covered with the brightest trees in the middle of a magical autumn. So maybe this is reading more like a love letter to Maine, but if you’ve ever been to New England in the fall, after having just lived through a summer in a beyond-humid area, you know how invigorating it is and what a bath for your eyes this painting can be.

The blue that Hartley uses for the water and the yellow in the trees, to me, are spot on. On a clear day on a lake in inland Maine, you can see each of these colorsin the reflection of the sky on the water, in the vegetation that blankets the entire state, and in the leaves that turn when they get that first taste of cool air.

Marsden Hartley grew up in Maine, moved away, and once he declared himself an artist, he came back and painted. Hartley gave the painting to artist Rockwell Kent, and Kent gave it to museum founder Duncan Phillips. Upon receiving it, Phillips wrote to Kent and said: “The Hartley is so fine a picture that I hesitate to accept it but the reason you give is a good one namely that in our Gallery many people will enjoy it to the artist’s benefit and to our mutual satisfaction.”

I miss finding Mountain Lake—Autumn in the Phillips’s galleries, and stopping to drink it in, think of home, a perfect fall day, and that damp brisk air that smells like leaves. Most of all, though, I miss wandering through the galleries, seeing my coworkers, and smiling as they, too, find something to stop and enjoy for a brief moment in the workday.

Susan Rothenberg: In Her Own Words

The Phillips Collection mourns the loss of trailblazing painter Susan Rothenberg (1945-2020). Rothenberg recently reflected on two of her works that are part of The Phillips Collection.

Susan Rothenberg, Dominos-Cold, 2001, Oil on canvas, 86 1/2 x 72 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Alice Swistel, 2019

“The painting Dominos-Cold is an expression of how I fell in love with green—a color I did not know well before I moved to New Mexico in 1990. I used cold and warm versions of green to represent the felt-covered game table, the site of our favorite board game. I like the fact that the hands aren’t anchored. They just float around the space of the painting. You really have to know that they are at a table. The hands are just these living things, moving around like the dogs or the horses.”

Susan Rothenberg, Three Masks, 2006, Oil on canvas, 59 3/16 x 66 1/8 in., The Phillips Collection, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions, 2007

“When I painted Three Masks in 2006, I was toying with the idea of paper bag masks like kids wear for Halloween.You know the old saying that everything an artist does is a self-portrait? I think it’s true. All of my work has a portrait element to it. But I still have a hard time allowing myself to make a complete human figure. So I guess it’s kind of a broken portraiture.”

We look forward to honoring Rothenberg next year in our forthcoming centennial exhibition and publication, Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collection for a New Century (2021). 

Riffs and Relations: African Art and Moderism

While The Phillips Collection is closed, The Experiment Station will be sharing some of the great artwork featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, now on view through January 3, 2021.

Early in the 20th century, African art, displayed at ethnographic museums in Europe and circulated in publications, came to the attention of artists as source material for new and exciting possibilities. Yet the objects that arrived in Europe by way of colonialism were interpreted mainly through visual cues and without proper context. This set up an uneven power dynamic and a false dichotomy between “civilized” European and “primitive” African cultures. The European fascination with the art of Africans and other non-Western cultures became known as “Modernist Primitivism.”

In the 1920s and 30s, Harlem Renaissance cultural leader Alain Locke advised in The New Negro and other writings that African American artists draw upon European aesthetic models (including Cubism and German Expressionism) indebted to African art. He also encouraged artists to learn more about Africa to help define their modern identity. In their studies, they looked to photographs of African art featured in Locke’s publications and others and attended exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art’s 1935 African Negro Art, which encompassed over 600 objects primarily from European and American collections. Winold Reiss and Aaron Douglas were among the many artists who engaged with African art in their own work.

Winold Reiss, African Phantasy: Awakening, c. 1925, Ink, watercolor, and gouache on paper, 19 3/4 x 14 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, Museum purchase

An immigrant from Germany, artist and illustrator Winold Reiss made a great impact on the visual culture of the Harlem Renaissance. Reiss illustrated Alain Locke’s The New Negro, a publication in which modern black identities were explored and imagined. Reiss’s 1920s modernist style was inflected with the latest Art Deco trends as well as the European modernist vogue for African art. African Phantasy: Awakening was published in the first edition of The New Negro. In an imaginative African setting, Reiss depicts a black couple dancing among patterns and symbols that recall a mythical African past. In spite of some stereotypical aspects, Reiss’s Jazz Age fantasy was of its time. His illustrations in numerous publications had an indelible influence on the development on African American modernists, especially his student Aaron Douglas.

Aaron Douglas, The Negro in an African Setting (later variant of panel 1 of Aspects of Negro Life), 1954, Oil on canvas board, 20 x 24 in., Collection of Steven L. Jones, Philadelphia and Chicago

The early works of Aaron Douglas (b. 1899, Topeka, KS; d. 1979, Nashville, TN) defined the images of the New Negro movement. By synthesizing Alain Locke’s charge to combine African arts and modernist style, he created a new idiom through which African American stories could be told. His aesthetic was heavily influenced by his teacher German modernist Winold Reiss who also advised him to study the arts of Africa.

Douglas is highly regarded for his epic four-panel mural cycle, Aspects of Negro Life (1934), commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. Adopting aspects of Cubism, he employed his signature aesthetic to chronicle the movement of African Americans from an African setting through slavery and Reconstruction to the vagaries of modern identity. The Negro in an African Setting, a variant of the first panel in the mural cycle, features many of the same elements of the original mural—men and women dancing and playing instruments, an African styled sculpture, and a border of lush foliage—all animated by concentric circles that radiate outward. New to the scene is a lone female observing from the margins.