Published: February 18, 2003
By Stephen May
HARTFORD, CONN. – Of the group of gifted early Twentieth Century American modernists who changed the course of our art, Marsden Hartley stands out increasingly as the most original, powerful and enduring. Such recognition has been slow in coming, due to Hartley’s peripatetic life, diverse output, loner status and quirks in the trajectory of his career.
While he benefited from the patronage and support of avant-garde impresario Alfred Stielitz, Hartley (1877-1943) stood apart from others in the Stieglitz circle – Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe and Paul Strand – because of his fervent embrace of European art, his frequent travels and his ceaseless experimentation. He began and ended his life in Maine, but in between moved restlessly in and out of New York, Provincetown, Gloucester, Taos, Bermuda, Nova Scotia, Paris, Berlin and various places in France, Germany and Italy. The diversity of locales where he painted and his willingness to experiment with new artistic directions made him hard for critics to categorize – and easy for them to shunt aside.
Hartley’s career was thus impeded by a variety of circumstances: he was a loner in a field where conviviality helps; a gay man at a time when homosexuality was repugnant to much of society; a frequent expatriate and aficionado of European art and an indefatigable innovator during a period when American subjects and consistent styles were favored, and an artist whose restless imagination led him to explore an array of modernist, even abstract, styles when predictability was preferred. He had his admirers in his lifetime, but always struggled to make ends meet.
In “Marsden Hartley,” the exhibition organizer, Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, the Wadsworth Atheneum’s deputy director, chief curator and Krieble curator of American art, assisted by Amy Ellis (assistant curator of American art), seeks to present the full range of Hartley’s achievements. Displayed are not only the familiar highlights of his early German abstract paintings and his culminating Maine landscapes, but what came in between.
“His entire artistic output warrants a comprehensive examination,” Kornhauser argues, “to appreciate fully Hartley’s contributions to modern art, and to provide greater clarity of understanding for all his work.” With the help of carefully selected artwork and a fine exhibition catalog, Kornhauser succeeds admirably.
“Marsden Hartley,” comprising 87 paintings and 19 works on paper, is on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum through April 20, after which it travels to The Phillips Collection (June 7 to September 7), and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (October 11 to January 11). The retrospective is sponsored by United Technologies Corporation and The Henry Luce Foundation.
Born Edmund Hartley (he later dropped the first name and called himself Marsden, his stepmother’s maiden name) in the gritty mill town of Lewiston, Maine, he was the son of Thomas Hartley, who worked in the textile mills and at odd jobs, and Elizabeth Jane Horbury. His parents had emigrated from Lancashire, England.
Hartley’s sense of loneliness may have begun with the death of his mother when he was 8, leaving his childhood “vast with terror and surprise,” as he later recalled. When his father remarried and moved to Cleveland, young Hartley lived with his married sister in Auburn, across the river from Lewiston, from ages 8 to 16. He dropped out of school at 15, working briefly in a shoe factory, before joining his family in Cleveland.
While employed as an office hand at a marble quarry, he began to attend classes at the Cleveland Art School. By 1889, with the help of a five-year stipend provided by a wealthy school trustee, he was in New York, studying at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design and attending Saturday critiques by William Merritt Chase.
During this period and for several years after, Hartley spent time in his native Maine, usually in the western part of the state, where he created numerous landscapes. They ranged from brilliantly hued Impressionist mountainscapes, such as “Carnival of Autumn,” 1908, and “the Ice-Hole, Maine,” 1908-09, to dark, foreboding canvases, influenced by Albert Pinkham Ryder, like “Deserted Farm,” 1909. The latter, growing out of periodic bouts of depression, suggests he had thoughts of suicide in mind.
The agitated crayon strokes in his highly expressive “Self-Portrait as a Draughtsman,” 1908-09, convey the intense energy and troubled feelings he poured into his work. By this time Hartley, who had begun to attract modest notice in the art world, was meeting painters such as Philip Leslie Hale and Maurice Prendergast during winters in Boston, and William Glackens and Robert Henri in New York City in 1909.
Introduced to modernist art promoter Stieglitz, he was promptly given his first solo exhibition at the legendary gallery 291. Hartley joined the Stieglitz circle, getting to know Dove, Marin, Alred Maurer, Max Weber and others, and was exposed to the work of the European avant-garde, notably Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. These contacts had an enormous influence on Hartley’s oeuvre.
In 1912, with proceeds from sales and contributions from patrons, he sailed to Europe, settling first in Paris. Immersing himself in that city’s lively mix of international artists, writers and performers, he was befriended by American expatriate Getrude Stein. She admired and collected his work and included him in the gaggle of creative personalities that gathered in her famed salon.
“Still Life,” 1912, a strong and accomplished oil, likely his first painting in Paris, reflects Hartley’s ability to incorporate ideas from other painters into his own work. As curator Barbara Haskell once observed, this painting “fused Cézanne’s composition and structural approach with the palette and decorative emphasis of Matisse.”
A few years later he painted an apparent homage to Stein, in “One Portrait of One Woman,” circa 1916, a colorful, boldly patterned canvas rife with enigmatic symbols.
Hartley visited Berlin in 1913 and immediately labeled it “without question the finest modern city in Europe.” Its “great activity of life” convinced him, he wrote Stieglitz back in New York, that “it is in Germany that I find my creative conditions — and it is there that I must go.”
The ambience of the imperial German capital, alive with the pomp, ceremony and militarism of Kaiser Wilhelm II on the eve of World War I, excited the American newcomer. Many feel the work he created during his stay in Berlin, from May 1913 to December 1915, well after hostilities began, was the best of his career. Especially admired is a 12-part War Motif series.
Before he began to focus on these war paintings, Hartley executed several fascinating and memorable canvases based on Native American themes. What he labeled his “Amerika” series was triggered by his interest in non-Western art, his affinity for America’s Indians and visits to ethnological museums in Paris and Berlin.
In her astute catalog essay on the subject, art historian Wanda M. Corn observes, “They are ‘expatriate’ canvases…created by an American abroad seeking connection with his birthplace while simultaneously trying to be noticed by the German avant-garde… They give a rich cross-cultural account of Hartley’s American love affair with Berlin and Germany’s romance with Native America.”
The two highly colorful, intricately patterned and symbol-filled examples in the current exhibition, “Indian Composition” and “Indian Fantasy,” both 1914, are built around a central pyramidal tepee, with various Native American-inspired artifacts grouped around them. Measuring roughly three to four feet high and wide, these canvases seem to throb with vivid color in dense designs. “Hartley’s hot reds and yellows, and orchestrated patterns,” writes Corn, “create what quiltmakers call an ‘eye-dazzler’: a surface of small chinks of color tightly pattered for eye-grabbing effects.” The stylistic innovations showcased in the “Amerika” series reach full maturation in the War Motif works.
Before World War I began Hartley sought to convey the atmosphere of modern Berlin — the sense of power, vitality, order and military showmanship — that so intrigued him. Utilizing vivid, swirling colors, he depicted a variety of shapes and symbols, warriors on horseback and mystical elements that add up to a portrait of the imperial capital.
In “Berlin Ante-War,” 1914, created at the outbreak of hostilities, four small, idealized landscapes in the lower portion suggest prewar German peace and prosperity, while the Prussian soldier atop a blue horse in the upper section symbolizes the military pageantry of a nation on the war path. The painted frame, adapted from German folk art, adds to this color filled, evocative presentation.
A few weeks after the start of the war, Hartley’s closest German friend and presumed lover, the handsome and dashing Karl von Freyburg, was killed in action. The American painter poured his grief into the highly emotional, deeply personal and dynamically composed War Motif series. The best known, “Portrait of a German Officer,” 1914, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the most moving of Hartley’s unconventional homages to his fallen companion. Incorporated into this 681/4- by 413/8 -inch masterpiece are portrait symbols ranging from the flag of von Freyburg’s native Bavaria and a black and white board representing his love for chess, to the Iron Cross medal the officer earned for bravery. The number four refers to von Freyburg’s regiment, 24 refers to his age at death, and his initials stand out at the lower left. These emblems, depicted in vibrant colors, gain added resonance because they are set against a plain black background that reflects Hartley’s sorrow.
As art historian Katrina Wilson notes in the catalog, “the success of this and other paintings of the series derives from the artist’s ability to infuse the accoutrements of public pageantry with the emotional intensity of personal love.”
“Painting No. 47, Berlin,” 1914-15, is an equally heartfelt eulogy for the artist’s dead companion, replete with von Freyburg’s initials, plumed helmet, Iron Cross, numbers and symbols. It constitutes a wide-ranging, mourning image to the friend whom Hartley described as “Man in perfect bloom/ of six feet splendor/lusty manhood time – all made of youthful fire/and simplest desire.”
Hartley recognized the importance of his Berlin paintings and wanted to continue, but he had to set them aside and return to the United States in late 1915, as America’s entry into the war loomed. In New York, where anti-German sentiment ran high, his German military images received lukewarm reviews. Few paintings sold.
“The immense tragedy of Hartley’s German paintings,” observes art curator Patricia McDonnell in the catalog, “is that the artist had to abandon them even though he knew well that they were a signal achievement, works that presented a commanding and original voice within the international avant-garde.”
In 1916 the ever peripatetic artist summered in the art colony of Provincetown, Mass., where he hobnobbed with Demuth and other creative figures, and painted a series of pale abstractions with geometric forms relating to sailboats, such as “Trixie,” circa 1916-17.
Following what he called the “Great Provincetown Summer,” Hartley was joined by Demuth for the winter in Bermuda, where they found warm weather and inexpensive housing. Responding to the sensuousness of his surroundings, Hartley painted two works, “Atlantic Window,” 1917, and “Still Life with Eel,” circa 1917, that feature a variety of phallic shapes in strongly brushed canvases. The latter, a particularly interesting window-sill image, was given to the Ogunquit Museum of American Art by Mrs. William Carlos Williams.
Hartley spent the following summer at Hamilton Easter Field’s Ogunquit art colony, where he experimented with painting on the back of glass, as exemplified by “Tinseled Flowers,” 1917.
In New Mexico during 1918-19, he depicted the rugged, expansive landscape, first in pastel and later in vibrant oils. He also turned out still life’s of Mexican American “santos” (altar pieces) in a semiprimitive style that conveys in bright colors the surprising power of these small figures. Long after he left the Southwest he continued to paint wonderfully vibrant evocations of New Mexico.
With proceeds from an auction of his paintings, Hartley returned to Europe in the 1920s, traveling widely, and to Venice and Aix-en-Provence, where he worked from 1926 to 1928. Falling under the sway of Cézanne in Aix, he lived in the French master’s old studio and painted from the same vantage point a group of Cesannesque, idiosyncratically hued, images of Mont Saint-Victoire.
Hartley came back to the United States in 1930, having spent 14 of the prior 18 years abroad. Showing his European works during a time of rising nationalistic feeling, he was critized by critics, colleagues and Stieglitz for having, as Wilson puts it, “abandoned American subjects and American aesthetic sensibility.”
Always pressed for money and seeking to reestablish his American patronage base, Hartley spent the summer in a quintessential New England setting, the mountains of New Hampshire. In “Franconia Notch,” 1930, he used a high-keyed palette and Cézennelike forms to capture the majesty and beauty of the region.
The following summer, in picturesque Gloucester, Mass., rather than painting the historic town and harbor, he trekked inland to Dogtown Common, a remote, forested area dotted with huge glacial boulders. In powerful, vivid canvases he conveyed his emotional response to the massive rocks he encountered in a memorable series, including “Mountains in stone, Dogtown,” 1930.
His next most significant paintings were created with the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Mexico in 1932, where he found special inspiration in viewing the snow-capped volcano, Mount Popocatepetl, near Cuernavaca, and reading texts on mysticism. His “pictures of mystical import,” in which he wove together mystical images and Mexican landscape forms, range from vibrant, simplified mountainscapes to the riveting “Morgenrot,” 1932. This memorable canvas features a large, bright red hand on a dark background that refers to the visions of Jakob Bohme, the artist’s favorite German mystic.
Hartley’s next wanderings took him to Germany, where he depicted mountainous vistas of the Bavarian Alps, and to New York, where financial pressures forced him to work for a time for the federal government’s Public Works of Art Project.
While summering again in Gloucester, he depicted anew the massive boulders in Dogtown Common, and created the small but vigorously brushed “Sea View – New England,” 1934, in which a boat’s sail is glimpsed through an opening ringed with Atlantic Coast symbols, including a large fish, star fish, lobster buoy and dock pilings. This 12- by 16-inch oil-on-academy-board is in The Phillips Collection.
During a brief sojourn in Bermuda Hartley began “(Flowers) Roses from Hispania,” 1936, one of his strongest and most colorful still lifes.
In the summer of 1936 he made a journey to Nova Scotia, where he lived with the large Francis Mason family, fisherfolk from East Point Island. Returning to stay with the Masons again in 1936, Hartley was overcome with grief when two young Mason sons, including Alty, to whom the artist had grown emotionally close, and a cousin, were drowned at sea. Hartley responded initially with somber seascapes and then a series of expressive memorial portraits. Employing a deliberately primitive style as a means to replicate the rugged, resilient nature of the Masons, the painter produced forceful evocations of the friends to whom he had become so attached.
Alty, the drowned son who as his special companion, was recalled by the artist as “tall, huge, gigantesque, [with] smoke black hair six inches above his low forehead,” a description faithfully conveyed in “Abelard the Drowned Master of the ‘Phantom,'” circa 1938-39. Similarly simplified, naïve portrayals of the Mason parents and daughter augment this unusual family gallery.
“Fishermen’s Last Supper,” 1940-41, rendered in the same neo-primitive manner, reflects Hartley’s admiration for the humility, affection and harmony that unified the Mason family. It is a powerful, endearing tribute to family togetherness.
“Christ Held by Half-Naked Men,” 1940-41, also apparently linked to the Mason tragedy, shows a brawny lobsterman cradling the diminutive dead Christ, as seven large compatriots, also shirtless and wearing jeans and Nova Scotia fisherman’s hats, look on. Evidence suggests that Hartley envisioned this as both a depiction of a Christian subject and a memorial to the Masons. It is from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden collection.
Starting in the late 1930s Hartley created a number of idiosyncratic, even startling, portraits and figure paintings. Among the most intriguing is “Portrait of Albert Pinkham Ryder,” 1938, done from memory, showing the bearded beetle-browed artist wearing a woolen jacket and knit skullcap as Hartley remembered observing him years before. “The Last Look of John Donne,” 1940, is another unusual likeness.
Hartley’s admiration for Abraham Lincoln, reflected in three portraits of the Great Emancipator, offers primitive, simplified images that underscore his brooding sadness and rugged strength of character. The best is “The Great Good Man,” 1942, a sizable work in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
In 1937 Hartley ended his wanderings and returned for good to his native state, determined to become “the painter from Maine.” Offering himself as a Mainer doing American work, he melded his mystical sensibilities with realism in his Pine Tree State oeuvre. Thus, for the remaining six years of his life, he adapted his modernist predilections to paintings that captured the rugged natural beauty and stalwart resiliency of “sturdy simple” Maine people, and paid tribute as well to its handsome young men.
Hartley was, in many ways, a strange fit to be a painter of the Maine scene. Rather than trying to fit in by presenting himself as an outdoorsman/regular guy, as some painters did, “his chosen persona was the urban sophisticate, the citizen of the world, the cosmopolitan,” as art historian Carol Troyen puts it in the catalog. He was, she adds, a “man of the world but painter from Maine.”
Hartley’s well-dressed appearance and look of world-weary sophistication was conveyed by Milton Avery in an 1943 painting that is not in the exhibition. In a similar vein, on view in a fascinating exhibition at the Bates College of Art in Lewiston (Hartley’s hometown) through February 28, photographer George Platt Lynes captured the debonair look and lonely visage of the artist in a series of standing and seated portraits taken in the early 1940s. The Bates College Marsden Hartley Memorial Collection, including paintings, drawings (ten of which are in the retrospective), papers and artifacts, is a significant trove for study by Hartley scholars (76 Russell Street on the Bates College campus; 207-786-6158).
Hartley’s homoerotic fascination with the male body is evident in late Maine paintings of athletes and sunbathers. His depictions of a champion swimmer and an Acadian prizefighter, painted in his primitive, rough-hewn style, features magnificently muscled torsos and skimpy briefs. These graphic likenesses of athletes were apparently intended for display in a gymnasium.
Hartley also reveled in sightings of powerfully built young men in tiny bathing suits on the white sands of Old Orchard Beach. In one painting he portrayed the towering, tanned figure of a French Canadian lumberjack, and in “On the Beach,” 1940, he depicted two large, bronzed men in bathing suits, one of whom shelters the tiny figure of a female bather.
In “Down East Young Blades,” circa 1940, and “Lobster Fishermen,” 1940-41, Hartley employed his neo-primitive style and black figures outlines to emphasize the ruggedness of quintessential Maine fisher folk. Surrounded by lobster traps and standing stalwartly on seaside docks, they exude the strength and fortitude of men who make their living at sea. “The rectangular torsos and arms, blunt lines and chiseled features of the young blades create the effect that they are part of the granite rockbound New England landscape,” observes art historian Donna M. Cassidy in the catalog.
In one of his first Maine landscapes after his return, “Smelt Brook Falls,” 1937, which measures only 28 by 22 inches, Hartley utilized broad, simplified, Cézannesque forms to convey the power of a forest stream in a manner that achieves a kind of monumentality.
Hartley’s bow to the piety of his fellow Mainers and his affinity for their straightforward white clapboard places of worship is reflected in the wonderfully stark “Church at Head Tide, No. 3,” 1938-40, and a drawing, “Church at Corea, Maine,” circa 1940-43. He used this abandoned church in Corea as a studio for the last several years of his life.
In the fall of 1939 the 62-year-old artist fulfilled a longtime ambition when he trekked to Mount Katahdin in northern Maine to sketch the sharp conical form of the highest peak in the state. “I know I have seen God now,” Hartley said of his exposure to the mountain that has inspired artists and writers since the time of Henry David Thoreau.
Over the next several years Hartley executed a score of versions of the towering landmark, in all seasons and moods, in muted tones and riotous colors. Four painted examples and a drawing are in the show. The standout is the exceedingly vivid “Mount Katahdin, Autumn, No. 2,” 1939-40, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
From 1940 until his death three years later, Hartley rented a room for much of the year in the home of a lobsterman and his wife in the remote fishing village of Corea, near Ellsworth. In this isolated outpost he created some of his most compelling, elegiac land and sea images. “His paintings from this period,” opines Kornhauser, “rank among the finest and most original works by any American artist.”
Some of their power emanates from the manner in which Hartley pared down forms to their essentials, underscoring a sense of durability, energy and solidity in keeping with the subject matter. In “The Wave,” 1940, for example, he captured in thick, vigorous white brush stokes the froth of a wave crashing against the rockbound coast. Its focus, immediacy and monumentality puts one in mind of the late seascapes of Winslow Homer, whom Hartley greatly admired.
In recollection of a happy and productive summer spent there in 1938, Hartley painted “Hurricane Island, Vinalhaven, Maine,” 1942, a powerful evocation of the constantly roiling ocean confronting the rocky cliffs of the pine-clad island.
In failing health toward the end, Hartley turned to subjects close at hand for inspiration, such as “Lobster on Black Background,” 1940-41. Painted a bright red, in contrast to the dark backdrop, this depiction of a Maine icon has surprising power and appeal.
Hartley died of heart failure in the hospital in Ellsworth at the age of 66. He was still some years ahead of the public acclaim and widespread recognition that eluded him in his lifetime.
As this outstanding retrospective documents, after struggling with a variety of demons throughout his peripatetic life, Marsden Hartley bequested to posterity a large number of remarkable paintings that run the gamut from the flamboyant militarism of World War I Berlin to the durability and beauty of his home state of Maine.
This widely diversified exhibition, drawn from all phases of the artist’s career, convincingly succeeds in capturing the enduring power and appeal of this singular American’s mind and brush. It solidifies Hartley’s place as an American master, one of the all-time greats of our art.
The exceptionally handsome and highly informative exhibition catalog is 334 pages long, with 150 color and 50 black and white illustrations. In addition to an insightful introductory essay by curator Kornhauser, it contains detailed chapters by art historians Cassidy, Corn, Ellis, Randall R. Griffey, McDonnell, Bruce Robertson, Troyen, Jonathan Weinberg and Wilson and conservators Ulrich Birkmaier and Stephen Kornhauser. There are entries about each work by Ellis, Kornhauser and Wilson and scholar Townsend Ludington, and a chronology.
Published by Yale University Press and selling for $55 (hardcover) and $39.95 (softcover), this will be the definitive work on Hartley for years to come.
In addition, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art will present “Marsden Hartley: Research and Reflections,” a daylong symposium, on Saturday, March 1, from 9 am to 4 pm. Its speakers are curators or art historians who have made notable recent contributions to the study of this important figure in American modernism; included are:
Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, deputy director, chief curator and Krieble curator of American painting and sculpture of the Wadsworth Atheneum;
Gail R. Scott, independent scholar and art historian, editor of The Collected Poems of Marsden Hartley, 1904-1943 and On Art, a collection of Hartley’s essays, and author of Marsden Hartley, an examination of his paintings;
Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin professor in art history, Stanford University, author of The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935;
Jonathan Weinberg, Getty scholar, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, author of Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the first American Avant-Garde, and of Ambition and Love in Modern American Art;
Carol Troyen, John Moors Cabot curator of American paintings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who has written extensively about American artists, including Marsden Hartley, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Charles Sheeler and Winslow Homer; and
Randall Griffey, assistant curator of American art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, whose doctoral dissertation was titled “Marsden Hartley’s Late Paintings: American Masculinity and National Identity in the 1930s.”
Tickets to the symposium are $35, $30 for museum members and includes admission to the exhibition that day. A $10 box lunch is available from The Museum Cafe if ordered by February 25. Advance registration is required.
Townsend Ludington, the biographer of Marsden Hartley, will present a lecture on the artist at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art on Saturday, March 29, at 11 am. Entitled “Marsden Hartley’s Coat of Many Colors,” Ludington’s lecture will explore how the artist’s meditations on people and places form a body of work reminiscent of a rich tapestry coat.
Townsend Ludington is the Boshamer distinguished professor of American studies and English at the University of North Carolina. He is the author of Marsden Hartley: The Biography of an American Artist and Seeking the Spiritual: The Paintings of Marsden Hartley.
Admission to the lecture by Townsend Ludington is free; however admission to the Marsden Hartley retrospective is $15. The Wadsworth Atheneum is located at 600 Main Street. For exhibition information, 860-278-2670. For reservations to either the symposium or lecture, call 860-278-2670, extension 3049.
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