Marsden Hartley
Biography of American Painter from Maine.

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Madawaska, Acadian Light-Heavy,
Third Arrangement (1940)
Whitney Museum of American Art.

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)


Art Training
Alfred Stieglitz Circle
Move to Europe and Abstract Art
War Motifs: Portrait of a German Officer
Maine: Mature Paintings
Gardener's Gloves and Shears

Portrait of a German Officer (1914)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
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organic abstraction, see:
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The American modernist painter, Marsden Hartley was one of the most original 20th century painters of his generation. After a traditional early life divided between New York and his native Maine, he went to France at the age of 35, after which he spent most of the next 26 years in Europe. He experimented with various modern art movements, including Impressionism, , Expressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, before finally settling on a more representational style in later years. He is best known for his early work between 1912-16, which was a hybrid of Expressionism and Cubism, as exemplified by his Portrait of a German Officer (1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York). Another important work is Painting No 5 (1914-15, Whitney Museum of American Art). On his eventual return to America in 1934, Hartley found inspiration in the wilderness and coastline of Maine, where he remained for the rest of his life. His mature work owes something to the sophisticated use of colour in the manner of Matisse (1869-1954) and the Fauvist painters, as well as to primitivism and the work of American tonalist painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917). His style was always personal, especially his landscape and still life painting, which was invariably charged with intensity though expressed in quiet, economical terms. Not truly appreciated in his lifetime, Hartley was commemorated posthumously with a major retrospective, since when his work has become more widely appreciated. Now regarded as an important figure in American art of the early 20th century.

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Art Training

Hartley was born to emigrant English parents in Lewiston, Maine. At the age of 13 he was drawing flowers and insects in a highly skilled manner. In 1892 he began studying art at the Cleveland Institute, and in 1899 attended the National Academy of Design in New York. He also enrolled at the Art Students League where he studied under William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), an exponent of Impressionism. He also became friendly with Albert Pinkham Ryder, visiting his studio in Greenwich Village as often as possible. A notable work from this period is After Snow (c.1908, Phillips Collection), which was painted during one of Hartley's regular visits to his Maine home. The grandness of the mountains, and the changing seasons fascinated the young artist. He painted this snowy scene in muted tones with Impressionist-type brushwork: the style paying homage in particular to Ryder, while the introduction of trees to stabilise the vertical composition is reminiscent of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), another painter whom Hartley greatly admired.


Alfred Stieglitz Circle

While in New York, Hartley came to the attention of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), photographer, and dealer in modern art (and later the husband of artist Georgia O'Keeffe) who ran some of the best known art galleries at the turn of the 20th century. Through his close friend Edward Steichen (1879-1973), Stieglitz had ties with Europe and introduced many of the avant-garde European artists to America, including Matisse (1908) and Picasso (1911). In 1909, Stieglitz gave Hartley his first major exhibition at the 291 Gallery, and another in 1912. As a result he was able to associate with many of the big names of his day including writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), the Cubist Fernand Leger (1881-1955), as well as the American modern artists John Marin (1870-1953) and Arthur Dove (1880-1946).

Move to Europe and Abstract Art

In 1912, at the age of 35 and financed by Stieglitz, Hartley moved to Europe to study Cubism. He studied the works of Cezanne, and visited the studios of Matisse and Picasso. He had previously studied Matisse, going so far as to produce his own work in the style of Fauvism - Mountain Lake - Autumn (1910, Phillips Collection). However, he was soon disillusioned with what he called the 'sickliness' and 'mediocrity' of the French artists: "If there was ever a more ridiculous lot of males as a clan, it is these Frenchmen."

Given his interest in American Transcendentalism, which had its roots in Teutonic philosophy, it is perhaps no surprise that Hartley found more spiritual affinity in Germany. After returning to New York in the early Spring of 1913 in order to exhibit at the Armory Show, Hartley went to Berlin, where he showed at the first Autumn Salon at the influential Sturm Gallery (founded by Herwarth Walden), in the Autumn. He exhibited alongside members of Der Blaue Reiter Group in Munich, including Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Paul Klee (1879-1940) and Franz Marc (1880-1916). Painting No 48 (1913, Brooklyn Museum of Art) is a key work whose intricate geometric arrangements and colour relationships owes much to Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) and Kandinsky.

War Motifs: Portrait of a German Officer

Between 1914 and 1915, Hartley painted more than a dozen powerfully emblematic paintings, which he called his War Motifs. These works combined the motifs of Cubism and the boldness of German Expressionism, and are now generally viewed as the best of his career. (In America, where anti-German feelings were naturally high, they were not well received.) Portrait of a German Officer (1914) - one of a series of portrait paintings - is perhaps his best known, painted in November of that year. The work is abstract in nature, depicting powerful imagery of war (medals, banners and flags) as well as imagery associated with a particular German officer - Karl von Freyburg, a young cavalry officer who had recently been killed in action. The painting contains his regiment number and age.

Maine: Mature Paintings

By 1916, Hartley's interest in abstract art was on the wane. He spent the rest of the decade and the 1920s working in different places, trying different things. He wandered through Mexico, Bermuda, New York, Aix-en-Provence and Berlin (producing several important series of paintings) - only to eventually find himself back where he started - Maine. (It was during this time that Hartley appointed Paul Rosenberg (1881-1959) as his Paris dealer and agent.) During He lived and worked for a while alongside a family of Nova Scotia fisherman. He fell in love with two sons of the family, who were tragically drowned at sea. He immortalized them in his painting Fisherman's Last Supper (1940-41, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art). This was a figure painting, which depicted the fishermen as muscular athletes, which gives the viewer a strong sense of the artist's feel for the human body.

Gardener's Gloves and Shears

Another important work is Gardener's Gloves and Shears (c.1937, Phillips Collection). This was probably painted on his return to Maine from Nova Scotia. Stung by comments that his work was not of a sufficiently 'American' nature, he made a conscious effort to evoke feelings of his native country. This painting, at first glance quite an uncomplicated composition, reveals a dynamic directness. The gloves and shears dominate the picture, and the brushstrokes make the gloves appear to have a life of their own. In 1942, a year before his death, he painted Wild Roses (Phillips Collection). A bouquet of wild roses is painted against a brick red background. The bouquet reminded Hartley of wreaths which were laid to his fishermen friends at sea, so the stark simplicity of the painting was highly personal. He was also a lover of , landscape painting, producing a series of atmospheric mountain and coastal scenes, together with several examples of portrait art, including his amusing Self-Portrait (1939, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art), which shows the aged, shy artist as a young, bleached-blond, gay sailor-type with tattoos and a stud earring. Hartley died in 1943.


Hartley continues to evoke high praise for his painting. According to Robert Cumming, critic and former Chairman of Christie's, Hartley was "the greatest American artist of the first half of the 20th century: original, mystical and gay. His Portrait of a German Officer series, is the major monument of early American Modernism."

Paintings by Marsden Hartley can be seen in several of the best art museums in America and Europe.

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