The Universal Notebook: DeWitt Hardy’s real life, death

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Artist DeWitt Hardy, one of Maine’s foremost painters and a cornerstone of the Ogunquit art colony, died doing what he loved.

On Saturday evening, July 8, he attended the opening of a Barn Gallery exhibition that included one of his paintings, he looked at the art of others, he talked with the artists, he probably had a glass of wine and then he said his good-byes and headed home. But Hardy only made it as far as the parking lot, where he collapsed and died as he got into his car for the drive back to South Berwick.

Hardy was 77 years old. Like most good artists, he was psychologically much younger and spiritually much older, but he had suffered with diabetes for decades and his earthly body finally ran out of time. Kind of poetic, really – the Ogunquit colony’s favorite son dying at a Barn Gallery opening. Not a bad way to go if you have to go (and, of course, you do).

The last time I saw Hardy was just before Thanksgiving last year. I went down to South Berwick to talk with him for an essay about drawing; he was one of the most skilled hands with a pen, pencil or brush I have ever met. He led the North Berwick Drawing Group in the study of the human figure every week beginning in 1963. That’s more than half a century of refining a hand and an eye.

After our conversation, Hardy showed me a selection of his recent works and I purchased a small watercolor of two white lilies. Hardy was a superb watercolorist, one of the few serious contemporary artists to make watercolor his primary medium. What appealed to me about the little painting is that Hardy had painted everything, except the flowers. The background is a rose wall, the leaves are green and the shadows blue, but the white lilies – symbols of purity – are bare white paper.

I first met Hardy back in the 1970s. It seems like another lifetime now that I purchased a suite of five or six small Hardy prints at Chris Ritter’s gallery in Ogunquit. Most of the year-round Maine artists I met back then – John Laurent, Beverly Hallam, Alfred Chadbourn, Stephen Etnier, among others – were of my parents’ generation. Hardy, still in his 30s, was the kid, the young gun. Only nine years my senior, he could have been an older brother.

Though closely connected to the Ogunquit art scene, Hardy’s best works portray and evoke backwater Maine-New Hampshire border towns that have seen better days. He painted a humble, human landscape of small towns and rail yards, places and people with a sense of abandonment. His floral still-life paintings were deftly executed bouquets of a transient beauty. But Hardy was first and foremost a figurative artist.

Hardy’s self-portraits are among the most honest, frank and unflattering self-appraisals I have ever seen. But it was the female form at which he excelled. A Hardy nude is often a sad, sullen or distracted young woman. The languid mood of many of his figure studies is probably just the product of the tedium of posing, but I have come to believe a few of the best Hardy nudes depict women who are both bored with small-town life and vaguely aware, as Albert Camus writes in the short story “The Adulterous Woman,” that men “hurl themselves desperately toward a woman’s body to bury in it, without desire, everything terrifying that solitude and night reveals to them.”

I have owned a large Hardy lithograph entitled “Woman and Chair” for many years, but I have never framed or hung it because it is too depressing to live with on a daily basis. A young woman in a peach robe sits on the floor smoking a cigarette in a room furnished only with an unoccupied wooden chair. Outside the window behind her, the bare branches of a tree stand stiff and still in a colorless world. It’s like a Raymond Carver story in picture.

I confessed to Hardy when I saw him last November that the print, while powerful, was just too bleak and disturbing to hang. He said that was understandable, as the model’s boyfriend had recently committed suicide.

Hardy was a fine artist, a beloved teacher, a fast friend, an accomplished set designer, an amateur athlete and a loving husband and father. But, in the end, he was also a thorough-going realist. He knew what he saw and what it meant. When you get to be 77, you have to be prepared not to come home some night.

I got the impression Hardy knew that. It’s right there in his art.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.