Experts Have Been Searching for This Marsden Hartley Painting for Decades. It Just Turned Up in a Bank Vault

An art historian tracked the painting down while working on an online catalogue of the modernist artist’s work.

Marsden Hartley, Friend Against the Wind (1936). Courtesy of the Bates College Museum of Art.

For decades, the whereabouts of a rarely seen painting by Marsden Hartley remained unknown, leading many experts to wonder if it still existed at all. But then, last summer, a Hartley scholar finally found it in an unexpected place: a bank safety vault.  

Gail Scott, an art historian who, with support from the Bates College Museum of Art, is leading a multi-year effort to catalogue all of Hartley’s works, was the person responsible for the discovery, according to the Portland Press Herald. Last year, Scott tracked down the last-known owner of the artwork, an unidentified collector who had purchased the piece more than 40 years ago, but never heard back. 

The reason for that, it turned out, was because the collector had recently passed away. Scott learned this fact months later, in the early summer of 2021, when she was contacted by an attorney for the estate of the buyer. Fearing that the prized artwork could be stolen from his Windham, Maine, home, the collector had, years ago, stored the artwork in the vault of a Key Bank branch in the adjacent city of Portland, the lawyer told Scott. 

In August, she finally had a chance to see it. “It took a couple of months, but sure enough, I walked down to the Key Bank in downtown Portland and into the big vault and there was this painting that I had never seen in color and had never seen in person,” Scott told the Herald

The scholar quickly went to work photographing and otherwise documenting the painting, a 14-by-17-inch oil-on-board picture of a gold chalice that Hartley had created in 1936 as a remembrance to friends who had drowned in a hurricane. Various titles had been scrawled in different handwriting on the back—Ciboire avec Ostie (or Chalice with Host), Friend in the Storm, Roses for Fishermen Lost at Sea—but Scott chose to stick with the one that Hartley himself seemed to have written: Friend Against the Wind.

That’s the name of the painting as it will appear in “The Marsden Hartley Legacy Project,” an exhaustive online catalogue of all the Maine-born artist’s paintings and works on paper. The project will be rolled out in the coming years by the Bates Museum of Art, which owns the Marsden Hartley memorial collection of 400 artworks and objects.

Hardly one of the modernist artist’s greatest hits, Friend Against the Wind has only been shown publicly twice, once at New York’s American Place Gallery in 1936, shortly after its creation, and again at Barridoff Galleries in Portland in 1980, where it was sold to the collector who eventually stored it in the bank. The only evidence the artwork existed at all was a black-and-white photo of it reproduced in a catalogue for an exhibition in 1987.

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