Marsden Hartley’s The Lost Felice (meaning “lost happiness”) is a painting that I really love. It’s certainly not the most upbeat of pictures, but it is extremely powerful, and is a truly great work. I am always captivated by the painting’s solemnity, intensity, and strange beauty. It was originally envisioned for a seamen’s chapel (never realized), and this painting could have served as the altarpiece; it has a sacred impact for a variety of reasons.
The story behind The Lost Felice is a deeply personal one for Hartley, though I hesitate to tell it. An interesting experiment might be to look at it first, without knowing anything about it, to see how you respond to it. Then, read the whole, tragic story behind the work.
I always feel this painting needs to be on its own wall if at all possible, so that a viewer can take it in and contemplate it without too much distraction. It is currently in the American galleries—in the same gallery that holds Thomas Hart Benton’s The Kentuckian.
As a postscript—a year or two ago we had a screening for our American Art Council of the film Cleophas and His Own—an adaptation of Hartley’s narrative about his experience with the family members represented in the painting. Here is the trailer: