Executed the year before Marsden Hartley’s death, the painting Wild Roses at first sight appears to be an unlikely subject for him, as he did not typically paint sweet still lifes. However, the painting probably refers to memorial services held annually in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, for fishermen lost at sea. During these services funerary wreaths of roses are thrown into the sea. In 1936, Hartley attended such a ceremony to commemorate the deaths of two close friends who had drowned off the Nova Scotia coast. In subsequent years, the deaths of these two young men seemed to haunt Hartley’s pictures. Although portraying the roses in a bouquet, not a wreath, removed them from the specific association with the memorial service, images of these flowers were deeply personal and poignant to Hartley as symbols of death.
In Wild Roses the bouquet dominates its plain, brick-red background. The white paper enfolding the flowers serves as a foil for the blossoms. The dramatic color contrasts, vibrant hues, and stark simplicity contribute to the painting’s compelling effect.