What you see: Daydreaming Girl, a circa 1950 sculpture by the late American outsider artist Morton Bartlett. It’s one of 15 he made between 1936 and 1963, when he created a series of highly detailed figures of children in order to photograph them. Rago Auctions estimates Daydreaming Girl at $100,000 to $150,000.
The expert: Marion Harris, an independent specialist for Rago’s Outsider & Fine Art, Curious Objects auction.
How does Morton Bartlett fit the definition of an “outsider artist”? “Outsider artist” means outside the mainstream, for various reasons. You can be in prison. You can not be informed by the art world. Another way is being obsessive. Morton Bartlett falls into the “obsessive” category. This was his life, and he didn’t have traditional [art] training.
Was Bartlett entirely self-taught? He taught himself to sculpt, make clothing, make wigs, and shoot photographs? He didn’t take classes, but he went to Harvard and left after two years. He certainly had no help with sculpting. His downstairs neighbor was a sculptor, and he clearly saw him working.
He taught himself to sew? Yes, yes. He bought wigs and altered them, but otherwise, he made everything. He didn’t make anything he wasn’t going to photograph.
He made the chair that goes with Daydreaming Girl? No, he bought the chair. I think that’s a commercial thing.
And he had no assistants? No, no, there weren’t. Nobody to help him. But if he wanted help, he would have gotten it. It [his project] wasn’t secret, it was private.
Do we know how much time he spent on creating each figure? We do. He tells us in a 1962 Yankee magazine story that each figure took up to a year, and each head took three to six months, depending on the head.
What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult these Morton Bartlett figures were to make? The level of difficulty was quite high. He clearly was a perfectionist.
What do we know about how he worked? My sense, and it’s only a sense, is he worked mainly on one figure until it was done. He started with metal armatures for the arms and the legs and built around them with clay and plaster.
How does Daydreaming Girl compare to the other Morton Bartlett figures? I’d put her quite near the top. Her knees are just slightly scuffed, and her toe just skims the floor. He captures the essence of childhood in this figure.
And that facial expression… so fleeting, and he gets it. Exactly.
What book is the Morton Bartlett figure reading? I have photos of Daydreaming Girl from several angles, but none shows the cover or the pages of the book clearly enough to identify it. It’s a book the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore supplied for us. [The museum recently displayed Daydreaming Girl in a themed exhibit on parenthood.] It’s a 1950s children’s book about airplanes, but it’s not the original book. We don’t know what the original book was, but everything else is original–the clothes, the chair.
Do we know if Bartlett had any opportunities to observe actual children when he was making these figures and photographing them? We do. I researched carefully, and that’s why I’m comfortable saying [the figures] are a fantasy family, with no dark intent. He worked for a toy manufacturer and distributor in Boston called Scharf, which is how we know that if he wanted help [making his figures], he could have had it. He took pictures of Scharf’s daughter and Scharf was delighted, very happy with them. Bartlett also took pictures of children on the beach at Cohasset. When the Yankee magazine article came out, he received letters from people who recognized the dolls. People wrote to him, asking, “Are you the same Morton Bartlett who took pictures of my daughter at Cohasset? I send my regards.” It’s obvious he had nice relations with everybody.
Bartlett made his figures in order to photograph them, but I looked through everything I could find for Bartlett online and I did not see any photographs of Daydreaming Girl. Did I miss them somehow? No. Two or three of the figures aren’t photographed. When I bought it [the collection of material that came from Bartlett’s estate], it was boxes of arms, legs, hands, hundreds of bits. It took two years to assemble them. The paint finish was so precise–not every arm goes in every arm socket. Once I had the 15 dolls [assembled based on Bartlett’s photographs] I had to go do the catalog. If I had bits that didn’t relate to a specific doll, I set them aside to deal with them later. Twenty-five years passed. The Met bought them. Bartlett became an icon. I didn’t forget about the extra box, but I didn’t give it extra attention. Then we [she and her husband] moved. Then we assembled this doll.
Are there any other Morton Bartlett figures that don’t survive–they appear in his photos but don’t correspond to anything in the storage boxes of parts? I don’t think so. I don’t believe there are any more. The two he didn’t photograph–perhaps he wasn’t happy with them. That’s probably the answer to that.
Are any of the Morton Bartlett figures intended to be pairs of siblings, or are they all individual? I don’t see them as siblings, myself. They’re all quite individual. A lot of people believe the three boy figures are self-portraits. The boys are always seven or eight, the age Bartlett was when he was orphaned and adopted.
Is there any evidence that he named these figures? Yes, there is some. There were little cards with typed names [that she found in the trove of material from his estate]. I don’t know if this was his record-keeping technique, but there’s no other evidence of names.
And there’s no way to know which name goes with which Morton Bartlett figure… Exactly.
How many photographs did Morton Bartlett take of these figures? About 220. When I bought them, I didn’t know there were photos. It really was boxes of arms and legs and heads. That’s why it took so long to assemble them. The photos are a small body of work, which makes it more amazing.
What I find the strangest fact about all of this is the 1962 Yankee magazine article. With the biography that Morton Bartlett wrote for Harvard, he was kind of in a walled garden, speaking to peers who would tolerate some eccentricity, and even with that piece, his reference to the figure-photographing project is oblique. It does not hint at the scope of what he was doing. The Yankee magazine article shows the Morton Bartlett figures and goes into detail about them. Do we know why he agreed to do that piece, and why he never again sought or allowed media coverage? When I bought everything, I started my research, which led me to the writer [of the Yankee magazine piece], Michael Tatistcheff. He’s now dead–he died ten years ago–but he did remember it. He was engaged to Patricia Beals, Bartlett’s goddaughter. Bartlett loved them both, but he had no money. It all went into the dolls. As an engagement gift, he said to Mike, who had just graduated in communications, “Would you like to write about my dolls?” The twist was Yankee magazine told Mike they would pay him $6. It was meant to be one of three articles on Boston craftsmen. But they only paid him $4, and he decided he didn’t want to be a journalist, and went into teaching.
I wouldn’t have guessed that would be the explanation. I wouldn’t have guessed it either, but it’s ordinary. Not a big fancy complicated answer. It spoke to his kindness and generosity. But Pat and Mike never got married.
It was an engagement gift for his goddaughter that got him to step forward during his life. That’s right. That also means he was proud of it. It was private, but not a secret. I think that’s very important.
Morton Bartlett stopped making the figures in 1963. Was the Yankee magazine article a catalyst for that? I don’t think it was. He moved in 1963, to a house two doors down. We asked his neighbor about that [why Bartlett stopped] in the Family Found documentary. He looked at us and said, “Because he was finished.”
Can you talk about what it was like to discover Morton Bartlett’s work at the Pier Show in New York in 1993? I just stopped in my tracks. Ironically, it was the first year I hadn’t done the fair. I just went in with the public. It didn’t look complete–boxes of heads–I think people didn’t know what to do with them. But I love dolls, and I felt immediately attracted to them. When I got there, it had just come off hold [a hold is imposed on an artwork when a dealer at a fair has a commitment from a buyer]. Right away, I said I’d have them. It was a bit of money, but it was a fortune in assembling and doing the catalog and the research. Up until a couple of years ago, people said to me, “I was just behind you when you bought.” [They were a few minutes late and would have bought if she hadn’t.] There’s a moral to not panicking and getting there when you’re relaxed.
So, you getting the Morton Bartlett figures was down to luck? Isn’t it always? Everyone was talking about them. Clearly, there was a lot of work to do [to make them saleable]. About 60 boxes were delivered.
Sixty is a lot! It is. But I had a visceral connection–I’ve got to know what it is. I was fascinated, and I wanted to find out more.
Do we know how Morton Bartlett’s figures came to be saved? And could you talk about the inherent power of this material? So many outsider artists have gone unknown because whoever cleaned out their place decided to chuck their stuff in the Dumpster or the landfill rather than saving it and finding a place for it. Whoever found Bartlett’s stuff recognized it was worth saving, even though all they saw was boxes of plaster heads and limbs. I don’t know about powerful, but I think it’s interesting and tender. I do love dolls. Maybe it was luck, again, or the power of the work. Henry Darger is another example. It does take someone to present it.
But Bartlett himself didn’t see the figures as inherently valuable as art. He didn’t see in them what we see now. I don’t know what he saw. I know he saw them as a family, because he carried the photos with him. They were 4 x 3, very small.
What, like wallet-size school portraits? Yes, exactly. That’s how I know the photos were his reality. He wrapped [the elements of the figures] up very carefully in newspapers dated to 1963, but he made the dolls only in order to photograph them, and he made the clothes only to clothe them. The end product was the photos.
Who saved the Morton Bartlett figures? Pat Beals was the one who told me this. He had a house, and after he died, his lawyer had the house cleaned out. This [the figures and the related material] was virtually all that was there. The cleaner contacted a dealer she knew and that dealer took it to the show on their behalf.
Why do you think he kept them? Because they were so beautiful, and they were part of the process. They were a means to an end. I’m quite comfortable in saying the photos are his reality, the end product. For 30 years, they were all in boxes. He didn’t need them any more–they had served their purpose. But it was 30 years of work. It was too special to throw away.
The Morton Bartlett figures were not mentioned in his will. Why do you think he left no instructions on what to do with them after he died? I don’t think he thought they were worth anything. And they weren’t, until they were complete. It took me five years to sell the first, and it was not easy.
I’m struck by the fact that he only did three boy figures, and all look to be around seven or eight years of age, which was roughly how old he was when his parents died and he was adopted. Why do you think he sculpted himself at the age when he suffered his greatest loss? Was he frozen in time? I don’t know. It’s just speculation that they look like him.
How reasonable is the speculation that the boy figures look like him? I don’t think I ever asked Pat Beals that. It is speculation, no more and no less than that.
Different art critics and art historians have different ideas about why Morton Bartlett made these figures. Why do you think he did it? I think it was a fantasy family. It was fulfilling the fantasy of having brothers and sisters.
The only reason the Morton Bartlett figures were recognized as art is because he died and they were found among his belongings. If we could somehow show him how people have received his creations, how do you think he would react? I think he’d be thrilled, I really do. And I think he’d be glad they survived. If he wanted to throw them away, he could have.
When did you finish assembling the Morton Bartlett figure titled Daydreaming Girl? About two years ago. Then we moved [she and her husband], and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore contacted me. They had exhibitions of Morton Bartlett before, twice. They asked, “Do you have any Morton Bartlett sculptures? Our next show is on parenthood.” I said, “If you had called six months ago, I’d have said no, but I just completed another one.” [She loaned it to the AVAM show.]
What condition is the Morton Bartlett figure Daydreaming Girl in? Everything was perfect. There’s slight surface paint restoration and a very good cleaning and there’s really nothing else. It’s like finding an old painting in a cellar. It didn’t need very much at all.
How many Morton Bartlett figures have come to auction? There was one at Christie’s in 2003. It was a seven-year-old girl. The estimate was $20,000 to $30,000, and I think it sold for $35,000.
How many of the 15 Morton Bartlett figures remain in private hands? I think maybe three or four.
How did you arrive at the estimate of $100,000 to $150,000? It was a bit of a struggle. Morton Bartlett figures have sold for more than that privately. At auction, you start below what they go for. I believe it will find its level. I’m not at all worried.
How to bid: The Morton Bartlett figure is lot 1052 in the Outsider & Fine Art, Curious Objects sale at Rago Auctions on October 20, 2019.
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Marion Harris has appeared on The Hot Bid once before, talking about a 19th century life-size French wooden artist’s mannequin that ultimately sold for $45,000.
Marion Harris also deals in antiques. Her website devotes a section to Morton Bartlett and offers the Family Found catalog. A short version of the Family Found documentary is on YouTube.
Images are courtesy of Rago Auctions.
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