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The Harley Farm

1920-1924 (possibly)
Origin: America, Michigan, Mason County, Riverton Twnshp
Unframed: 13 3/8 x 19 x 1in. and Framed: 17 1/4 x 23 1/8 x 2in.
Oil on pressed fiberboard in a gold-painted frame
Museum Purchase, Dr. and Mrs. T. Marshall Hahn, Jr. Fund
Acc. No. 2003.102.1
A farmscape on a convex, oval support, the horizon line not far below horizontal center. Most of the foreground is occupied by a field of green, interspersed with blooming plants. A road runs across the picture, nearly parallel with the horizon line and not far below it. At far left, two red-painted frame farm buildings stand in front of a grove of tall, leafy trees. To their right (and across the road from them), stands the farm house, a frame building painted a pale yellow with a pale blue roof, nestled in the grove of trees. Toward the middle of the picture, a rectangular block [identified by the vendor as a scales for weighing animals] stands near the road and, to the right of this, beyond the grove and on the far side of the road, a flock of fowls is scattered over the grass to the left of and in front of a large, red-painted frame barn. Two utility poles are evident on the near side of the road. Above the trees and buildings, the blue sky is extensively filled with billowing clouds.
Label:Steve Harley's parents had established themselves on the farm shown in the painting by 1882. Their yellow house, only partially visible through the trees in the oil, can be seen in larger, clearer detail in several late nineteenth-century photographs, some of them owned by the Folk Art Museum and others owned by the Mason County Historical Society in Ludington, Michigan.
Harley never married and remained on this farm through both his parents' lifetimes, assuming ownership of the place following his father's death in 1900 and sharing the home with his mother until her death in 1919. After that, Harley appears to have become increasingly restless and hostile to the confining lifestyle represented by farm life.
In 1924 or 1925, Harley reached an undocumented agreement with a local blacksmith, Albert J. Tonn (1890-1971), who moved into the Harley home with his wife, Ida Wagner Tonn (1889-1977), their daughter, Arlene (b. 1918), and their son, Donald (1923-2002). Harley retained title and, possibly, continued living in the house. If not, he dropped in and out of it sporadically thereafter, since Arlene Tonn (later, Quick) recalled his frequent presence during her childhood.
Harley set off to visit relatives in California and explore the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1920s, leaving the Tonns ensconced in his house. In his absence, the farm was seized and sold at auction to cover unpaid back taxes, but the bank that bought it allowed the Tonns to continue living there. The house burned to the ground April 10, 1927. The Tonns immediately rebuilt on the site, and in July of that year, acquired legal possession of the property. The later, re-built farmhouse stands on the property today, as do the original Harley outbuildings painted red in the artist's scene.
Harley's painting showing the original family house was either given or sold to the Tonns. Almost certainly the artist worked from (and possibly even directly over) a photograph, judging by the materials, shape, and style of the support, frame, and glazing, all of these features being associated with photographs of the period. In addition, the vast, scarcely differentiated foreground creates a more detached frame of reference than is characteristic of Harley's known oils.

Provenance:Arlene Tonn Quick (AARFAM's vendor) was given this paintining by her parents, Albert J. Tonn (1890-1971) and Ida J. Wagner Tonn (1889-1977). The Tonn family lived on the property for a few years in the 1920s (see Luck, "Bibliography"). Presumably the elder Tonns acquired the painting directly from the artist
Inscription(s):Within the composition, a white, rectangular block, near center, is lettered in red paint; some of the letters are legible, others are not [the latter indicated here as "squiggle"]. No sense has been made of the wording as yet. Were these marks intended as "mock" lettering? The markings appears to read, "[squiggle] F A M [squiggle] I/[squiggle] N N I".
On the back of the primary support in graphite is, "14/485/66". A detached secondary support, made of crumbly pressed cardboard like the primary support and likewise convex in shape, is lettered on the front in white chalk in script, "Harry Griffith" and, on the back, in graphite in script, "Arlene".