As a teacher, he was said to be inspiring. As an administrator, he was considered groundbreaking. As a curator, he may have been a visionary.
But as an artist, it was the smaller moments that seemed to fascinate Vincent Hartgen. A blade of grass. A tidal pool. The moon shining through the trees.
Now six years after his death at the age of 88, his sons Stephen and David Hartgen and Maine art critic Carl Little have collaborated on the first book celebrating the life and work of a man who built up the University of Maine art department, acquired more than 5,000 works for the University of Maine Museum of Art, and brought contemporary art to all corners of Maine.
“Vincent Andrew Hartgen: His Art and Legacy,” now available in a paperback coffee-table format, is a comprehensive biographical look at the artist, packed with photos, lists and, of course, examples of Hartgen’ s renowned watercolors.
Beyond the facts and figures, however, is the soul of the book — an exploration of Hartgen’ s connections to nature and to Maine, the Pennsylvania native’ s adopted home.
“It was just the overwhelming nature of Maine’ s climate, the change of seasons, and yes, the snow,” Stephen Hartgen said recently from his home in Idaho. “It just became part of him. & For him I think Maine was very, very rugged, very compelling.”
Many of the book’ s 48 color plates and 42 drawings illustrate Hartgen’ s interest in the power of nature. Stephen Hartgen said his father, who grew up in Reading, Pa., had never seen such landscape until his move to Maine in 1946. “After the Fire” a 1947 watercolor, depicts a stand of trees decimated by the Bar Harbor fire of that year. The ground and the trees are singed, but there is life in the blue and green hues of the sky.
In the 1952 work “Spray Crescendo & Schoodic,” which graces the book’ s cover, Hartgen captures a moment on the Maine coast — the crash of the waves, the mist in the air and the churning sea.
Schoodic was a common Maine theme for Hartgen, as were Deer Isle and the Katahdin region.
It was Hartgen’ s ability to capture the “very quick of nature,” as Little wrote in his foreword, that likely drew so many admirers to his works.
“He considered himself unique in so far as he was able to see the crackle of ice or the swish of birches and to create an experience …,” Little said in a recent interview. “I think he really did have this wonderful connection with the [natural] world.”
Hartgen’ s mastery of watercolor, Little added, put him among the most influential of the artists working in that medium at the time.
The chronologically arranged color plates represent a period from 1936 to 2002. Hartgen’ s sketches are interspersed throughout the book. The goal, Stephen Hartgen said, was to demonstrate his father’ s range through the years.
“His early watercolors were very sparse and not very detailed,” Stephen Hartgen said. “But as he got more into working in Maine, he began to use painting as reflective more of the power of nature, so he moved into these very strong, dramatic seascapes of waves crashing over the coast rock. Then he would do an intimate little painting of grasses in a summer field or a winter scene of grasses poking through the snow. We just wanted to reflect the different styles that he had.”
In addition to the color plates and sketches there are — hold on to your hats, Hartgen fans -— 16 pages of photographs, a 2,000-item inventory, listings of Hartgen’ s exhibitions, of museum, public and corporate holdings around the country, and of major works held by both the University of Maine Museum of Art and the UMaine art department.
Stephen Hartgen said his father kept detailed records, mostly for tax purposes, which were helpful in the compilation of the book.
That process began soon after the 2006 death of Hartgen’ s wife, Frances. At that time, Stephen Hartgen said, the brothers decided to begin work on the book in earnest. They enlisted Stephen’ s daughter, Tara Wright Beck, who is a graphic designer for the Idaho Statesman newspaper in Boise, to design the cover and the book.
The next step for the brothers was to find a writer for the introduction and accompanying essays. Michael Lewis, who like Vincent Hartgen is a University of Maine professor and well-known artist in his own right, connected them to Little.
Little spent about two months researching Hartgen, doing a lot of work at UMaine’ s Fogler Library. It took Little about three months this winter to compose the essays.
“I always wanted to write about this guy,” said Little, who briefly met Hartgen in 1989. “Both his art and his life are remarkable. I jumped right into it. [Stephen and David Hartgen] had this vision from the beginning that this was going to be it, a monument to their father in a way. The full-blown treatment.”
Little, who is the director of communications and marketing at the Maine Community Foundation in Ellsworth as well as a poet and the author of more than a dozen books about art, wrote 11 essays for the book, organized according to Hartgen’ s various roles as teacher, curator, administrator, artist and kind of “Music Man” of Maine art, as painter Beverly Hallam of York told Little, as Hartgen encouraged artists around the state while showing works all over Maine, bringing contemporary art to communities that were unfamiliar with it at the time.
Stephen Hartgen couldn’ t have been more pleased with how the book came together — the images, words, documentation that round out a portrait of the man who was both his father and one of Maine’ s key cultural figures.
“This is the only book probably that’ s going to have the level of detail of his work and his life, his contribution to Maine art,” Stephen Hartgen said. “[The book] was labor of love, the whole process, and a lot of work.”
“Vincent Andrew Hartgen: His Art and Legacy” is available at the University of Maine bookstore in Orono, Maine commercial bookstores or may be ordered directly from Wildflower Lane Publishing, 1681 Wildflower Lane, Twin Falls, Idaho, 83301, or by email request to Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com. The price is $55 plus shipping and handling.