Sunken Treasure is one of a series of paintings by Marsden Hartley during his visit to Bermuda in 1935. He stayed with Elmo Petty on North Shore Road who took him out to set fish traps. The fish they caught inspired the series. *Image by Marsdon Hartley
Sunken Treasure is one of a series of paintings by Marsden Hartley during his visit to Bermuda in 1935. He stayed with Elmo Petty on North Shore Road who took him out to set fish traps. The fish they caught inspired the series. *Image by Marsdon Hartley

Marsden Hartley was, without a doubt, one of the pre-eminent artists of the American Modernist art movement. 

His influence was growing in 1917 when he ventured to Bermuda with his comrade Charles Demuth. He and Demuth painted in the relative solitude of Bermuda during World War I, forging a close friendship and exploring techniques such as cubism.

Albert Gleizes, the French artist, introduced them to cubism when he arrived on the island for his honeymoon. The pair stayed first at the Brunswick Street Hotel and then moved to the St George Hotel, which was pretty desolate, except for a few British soldiers.

When Demuth died in 1935, Hartley was inconsolable and decided to return to Bermuda on a sentimental journey in remembrance of his old friend. On this occasion, he stayed with Elmo Petty, a plumber by trade who lived on the North Shore. Hartley paid $15 a month to rent a room and as an added bonus, went out with Petty each Sunday when he went out to set his fishing traps. The fish that they caught inspired a series of whimsically named oil paintings of the bright fish and underwater creatures he observed.

Sunken Treasure
is a companion to the other works he did at this time with names such as Tropical Fantasy and Summer and Thursday Afternoon — alluding to the now-gone Bermudian tradition of having Thursday afternoons off and being able to pursue summer time passions such as fishing.

Hartley remarked about the fish, “they seemed more like birds and flowers than fish — one mottled green one with vermillion wings (or fins) others pure blue, one a parrot fish all parrot colours, others mystical white or pink.”

He said his paintings were not accurate scientifically but they represent this mystical appearance – and you can’t go wrong in paint because they run the whole chromatic scale themselves.” 

Elise Outerbridge is curator at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art.