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Marsden Hartley

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Marsden Hartley
(Lewiston, Maine, 1877 – 1943, Ellsworth, Maine)

Marsden Hartley was born in 1877 to immigrant parents in the mill town of Lewiston, Maine. The last of nine children, Hartley’s mother died when he was eight. His father, unable to care for his youngest son, left the boy with an aunt in the neighboring town of Auburn. To escape from his lonely childhood and perhaps to understand his familial loss, Hartley sought solace in the surrounding woods and fields. Nature became his companion and later served as a nurturing inspiration throughout his life and career. Hartley left school at fifteen and went to work for a shoe factory in Auburn. In 1893, the artist joined his father and stepmother, Martha Marsden (whose surname he later adopted as his own), in Cleveland. In 1898, Hartley received a scholarship to attend the Cleveland School of Art, where instructor Nina Waldeck gave the artist a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays. The work’s philosophical tone conveyed self-reliance, individualism, and life’s open-ended possibilities—no doubt striking a chord with a young man who was lacking a high school education, without family support, and who was struggling to find a place in life. According to Emersonian tradition, perception is a process of looking beyond the commonplace fact and forms of nature in order to comprehend their spiritual essence. (1) This idea later dominated Hartley’s paintings in his explorations of New England, Mexican (both Old and New), and European landscapes.

In 1899, Ann Walworth, a trustee of the Cleveland School of Art, recognized Hartley’s talent and provided him with a five-year stipend to attend art school in New York. He enrolled in the Chase School (also known as the New York School of Art) in fall of the same year. Hartley never studied with Chase directly, and he found the formalities and instruction of a school run by a “gentleman painter” too costly and superficial. The following year he transferred to the National Academy of Design. Although Hartley seems to have done well in his art schooling, nature provided more significant instruction. After 1900, every summer for eleven years, the artist lived in Maine, sketching and exploring the countryside. (2)

In 1904, with his stipend from Walworth coming to an end, Hartley took a job as an extra in a New York theater company. (3) It was during this period that the artist began reading and was influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman. Hartley met Whitman’s longtime aide and literary advisor, Horace Traubel, who was an editor of the socialist newspaper, Conservator. Traubel called for an art that “stemmed directly from life and urged the creation of poetry and pictures that visibly affected the reader or viewer” and reverberated with the energy of life itself. (4)

During the summer of 1907 Hartley worked at Green Acre, a retreat in Eliot, Maine. The Congress of Religions met at Green Acre to discuss universal brotherhood and religious and mystical subjects such as the unification of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Hartley was introduced to the group through Traubel and Thomas Bird Mosher, a Whitman devotee and publisher. This introduction to mysticism and eastern philosophies, coupled with the influence of Whitman, Emerson, and nature, shaped the content of the artist’s oeuvre.

Hartley’s early works of this period are paintings of his observations of nature. Instead of painting traditional landscapes that are all encompassing and representational, like those of the Hudson River School for example, Hartley recreated nature in a flurry of impressionistic brushstrokes as if the viewer was looking through a telephoto lens. For example, in Landscape (#3—Song of Winter) (c. 1908, Private Collection), the artist depicts a winter scene with trees and a mountainscape. Using thick strokes of swirling impasto, Hartley loads the foreground with a line of trees. Without the use of recession or atmospheric perspective, the artist fills the rest of the canvas with a glorious purple and pink mountain range topped with caps of white snow. A strip of blue runs across the top of the painting. By dispensing with traditional perspective, Hartley brings the viewer directly into nature, as if he or she is a participant in it, not merely an observer as with traditional landscapes.

In 1908 Hartley befriended members of “The Eight”. (5) Hartley exhibited and socialized with the artists, and it was at this time that he was introduced to photographer, dealer and champion of modern art, Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was impressed by Hartley’s landscapes, and gave him a one-man show at his “291” gallery. This exhibition was the first one-man show of an American painter at the gallery. The fact that an unknown artist could come out of the backwoods of Maine, with a few introductions and a group of landscape paintings, and break into the avant-garde scene within a few weeks, spoke magnificently of Hartley’s career and what was to come. When dealer N. E. Montross saw the artist’s paintings at “291,” he recognized an affinity, and brought Hartley to his studio to view a small marine painting by Albert Pinkham Ryder, Moonlight Marine (n.d., Metropolitan Museum of Art). In this small painting, a ship sails under a moonlit sky. The forms are created out of dramatic light and shadow and nature is evoked as a source of mystery. The painting encompassed everything that had influenced Hartley until this point in his career, and the power of the elder artist’s work is echoed throughout Hartley’s oeuvre.

Initially, due to Ryder’s influence, Hartley’s palette was dominated by dark, brooding colors, and his paintings were primarily landscapes. However, Stieglitz’s shows of European modernists at “291” soon changed this. In an effort to usher European modernism into the American dialogue, Stieglitz exhibited the works of Henri Matisse and Paul Cezanne among others. Hartley had seen these works previously, albeit in black and white photographs. Once he saw the paintings in person and experienced their brilliant color, Hartley’s canvases exploded in color, shattering form and composition. His impressionistic brushstrokes gave way to hardened and outlined form. While strongly influenced by Ryder and the European modernists, Hartley’s work was never marked by pure emulation. He was able to take what he needed from his predecessors and mold it into his own vision, however this only occurred after his first visit to Europe in 1912.

By April of 1912, Hartley was in the heart of the Parisian art world. Paris was a mecca of art and ideas—in a short time period, Hartley visited the Louvre, the Salon des Independants, the Salon des Beaux-Arts, and other major art venues where he saw the works of Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Signac, Georges Seurat, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and Cezanne. The artist also explored the Musée d’Ethongraphie du Trocadéro where he was able to study ethnographic objects from all over the world. Objects such as Pueblo pottery soon appeared in his still-life studies.

While in Paris, Hartley became acquainted with a small German coterie that included a young sculptor, Arnold Rönnebeck, and his cousin, Karl von Freyburg. (6) As art historian Gail R. Stott explains, Hartley felt an immediate affinity for his new German friends, with whom he had more in common than with his fellow Americans. It was also with this group that Hartley discovered the homosexual subculture that would later make Germany so appealing to him. (7) Hartley made other important connections while in Paris, attending Gertrude and Leo Stein’s famous Saturday evening gatherings. Frequent guests included Picasso, Matisse, Robert and Sonia Delaunay. (8) It was at this time that Hartley read Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art and became familiar with Kandinsky’s Der Blau Reiter group (active in Germany).

In January 1913, Hartley first visited Berlin where he stayed with Rönnebeck and his family. On his way back to Paris, Hartley stopped in Munich where he met with Kandinsky. With Rönnebeck as translator, Hartley described his own work and the artists discussed their mutual interests. Hartley also developed a relationship with Marc, and eventually exhibited his early abstractions with der Blaue Reiter at the salon in Munich. By May of 1913, Hartley had taken up permanent residence in Germany.

Hartley arrived in Berlin in the midst of festivities surrounding the marriage of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s daughter. The city was bustling with activity—military parades and torchlight processions with music and cheering crowds. They were elements that inspired Hartley’s best-known paintings. The Warriors (1913, The Regis Collection, Minneapolis) portrays the military processional for the marriage of the Kaiser’s daughter. Four principal officers on blue, red, and white horses form a hierarchical arrangement before red and gold orbs. Portrait of a German Officer (1914, Metropolitan Museum of Art) is an example of Hartley’s German officer paintings. The work was painted as a memorial to von Freyburg, who was killed during the War. Portrait of a German Officer is a grouping of symbols on a black background that refer to von Freyburg: his initials KvF, E for his regiment, the regimental patches, banners and the Iron Cross he was awarded. (9) The painting also represents one of Hartley’s abstract portraits. Its signs and symbols are recognized as individual, thus providing the association with a specific person although a figure itself is not represented.

In November, Hartley returned to America for the first show of his Berlin paintings at “291”. The artist remained for five months before returning to Germany, arriving in Berlin with a renewed vigor. His fascination with primitive art prevailed, and Hartley spent time studying the collections of American Indian art at Berlin’s ethnographic museum, Museum fur Volkerkunde. The artist soon planned a series of painting with an American Indian motif, which he called his “Amerika” pictures. One example of these paintings is Indian Fantasy (1914, North Carolina Museum of Art). In the work, a large tepee dominates the canvas with an eagle flying overhead. In the background, seven cigar store Indians sit in canoes. Two more Indians sit in the foreground at the base of the tepee.

Unfortunately, Hartley’s Berlin paintings were not very popular in World War I era America where anti-German sentiments were strong. However, heiress and art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan befriended Hartley and began buying his work. Luhan, who associated with Stieglitz and the artists he supported at “291,” encouraged Hartley to visit her in Taos, New Mexico. Hartley’s first visit came in 1918, where he began to paint still life that incorporated the native religion and art. Hartley also began to paint abstracted landscapes, becoming fascinated with the New Mexican mountains. The paintings are a precursor to the mountainscapes he would paint in Mexico fifteen years later.

Hartley returned to Berlin in 1921. Stieglitz, who had shut down “291” in 1917 as a result of financial difficulties due to World War I, was still having difficulty selling Hartley’s German work. The artist remained abroad until 1929. While in Europe, Hartley spent the most of his time in Paris and Berlin, and traveled to Italy in order to see the Renaissance masters. The most important influence on the artist at the time was the Parisian avant-garde. Hartley once again began painting the figure in large form, obviously influenced by Henri Matisse. His landscapes of the French countryside were formed of sharp, blocky and broken strokes of paint, recalling Paul Cezanne. His palette had lightened considerably—instead of harsh, bold, contrasting colors, the artist began to experiment with softer pastels and complementary colors.

Arriving in back in the United States in 1929, Hartley painted American landscape. His mountainscapes were in the same style as those he had painted in France—very little foreground, with the picture plane pushed directly to the mountainside. His brushwork still choppy and Cezannesque, Hartley continued to work from a softer palette.

In the spring of 1931, Hartley won a Guggenheim fellowship, which required artists choose a location outside of the United States in order to paint and study. Hartley chose Mexico but decided to postpone his trip one year in order to continue painting in New England. More specifically, the artist was captured by an area near Gloucester, Massachusetts, known as Dogtown Common— a glacial moraine with gigantic boulders. He felt Dogtown would prepare him physically and psychically for Mexico. (10)

One of the most impressive formations at Dogtown is an abutment of two monolithic boulders known as “Whale’s Jaw.” (11) Hartley captured the rocks several times in different media—ink, pencil, pastel, and oil. Whale’s Jaw, Dogtown Common, Cape Ann (1934, Yale University Art Gallery) is loose and painterly, and includes graffiti from visitors. Gail R. Scott explains that Whale’s Jaw completes a cycle of metamorphosis and metaphor: formed originally by elemental forces of nature, the rocks are transformed by the power of imagination into another monolith, the largest living mammal, a sea creature stranded first on a barren field, and then on the field of canvas. (12) The painting demonstrated Hartley’s continuing interest in the relationship between man and nature. Dogtown was one of Hartley’s favorite locations because of its isolation and “metaphysical” landscape. Here, Hartley could focus and come to terms with himself and his art.

Hartley arrived in Mexico in March of 1932, and initially found it beautiful and intoxicating. He studied the archaeological remains of the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations at the Museo Nacional and became fascinated with the intermingling of historical fact with mythology and legend. According to art historian Jeanne Hokin, Hartley visited the two great pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, as well as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan. At Teotihuacan, the temple is constructed entirely in stone with a façade of vertical panels. The panels are decorated with seashells, and painted, carved, and stuccoed with the images of two deities—Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, god of the heavens, and Tlaloc, the god of the rain. (13) For Hartley, it was “the grandest experience of my life” and a revelation. The pyramids were an incarnation of the forces of nature and the concrete embodiment in stone of a supreme cosmic being. (14)

Hartley’s study in Mexico began well, and he found himself settling into the artistic and literary environment. Photographer Paul Strand, who was closely associated with Stieglitz and with whom Hartley had developed a close relationship, and poet Hart Crane were also in Mexico City. However Crane's committed suicide that April cast Hartley into despair. (15) He sank into a depression that was not relieved until his return to Germany almost a year later. Hartley was unable to come to terms with the tragic incident, as well as his inability to avert the disaster. The artist blamed Mexico itself for the poet’s death.

In a tribute to Crane, he wrote:

Some of us here think we are right when we say that Mexico was too terrific and stimulating for him…. The artist or poet coming here to get anything at all, is at once and must be, intoxicated by it and for the poetic temper it can be too much. Just what the blackening evil was that came over him in the last months and the last moments, none of us can make out…. Something broke—something went fluid, and the dread result was precipitated. (16)

As a tribute to his friend, Hartley painted Eight Bells Folly, Memorial for Hart Crane (Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis) in 1932. (17)

Within a month, depressed because of mounting expenses and a distaste for the altitude of the city and its food, Hartley moved from Mexico City to Cuernavaca. In Cuernavaca Hartley had access to an immense library that focused specifically on mystical literature and the occult. With Aztec and Mayan history still fresh in his mind, the artist became immersed in the writings of the Swiss occultist and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541). Hartley painted approximately twenty paintings while in Mexico, calling the series Murals for an Arcane Library. The paintings were exhibited in Mexico City in 1933. The Museum’s landscape Earth Warming, Mexico (1932), and its companion piece, Earth Cooling, Mexico (1932, Amon Carter Museum) were included in the series.

Hartley’s most interesting paintings from the period are those strongly influenced by his interest in mysticism. For example, Morgenrot (1932, Private Collection) is a painting of a red hand (palm facing the viewer) highlighted with white and surrounded by seven floating orbs on a black and blue ground. It is believed that the painting represents a mystical illumination of German mystic Jakob Boehme, whose work Hartley was reading at the time. Another eccentric work is Yilaster (Paracelsus) (1932, Babcock Galleries, New York) which was dedicated to Paracelsus. In the painting, Hartley “uses a volcano and a divine ray of light to suggest the powerful cosmic forces that this alchemist and physician [Paracelsus] believed emanated from below and above the earth." (18) Hartley’s Guggenheim fellowship was not renewed, and in April, 1933, he sailed for Hamburg.

When Hartley arrived in Europe, he resumed landscape painting. He remained in Europe approximately a year, concentrating on the German landscape. Drawn to the German Alps, he created magnificent paintings such as Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavarian Alps (1933-1934, Carnegie Museum of Art) and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, No. 2 (1933, Regis Collection, Minneapolis). These mountainscapes differed from his earlier paintings in that the artist eliminates the foreground, drawing the viewer directly into the mountain range. His paintings from this period, he said, had “a richer, settled look of inner peace,” which in turn had an impact on his own state of mind. “What I am doing here now is the work of the rest of my life.” (19) Already he was planning to return to Maine and one of the major subjects of his career, Mt. Katahdin.

Hartley returned to the United States in the midst of the Great Depression. Forced by financial necessity to participate in the WPA artists program, Hartley produced very little. In the summer of 1934, however, Dogtown was once again his artistic salvation, and he resumed his series of works on that subject. This time, he painted a number of still lifes, such as Shell and Sea Anemones, Gloucester (1934, Babcock Galleries), and New England Sea View—Fish House (1934, Private Collection). The works are marked by strong line and color. As relieved as he was to be back in Gloucester, Hartley’s depression reached a new low point during the winter of 1934-1935. He spent his 58th birthday in a “massacre of innocents,” destroying one hundred canvases and drawings to reduce the bulk of his art storage.

In the fall of 1935, Hartley traveled to Nova Scotia to visit his friend Frank Davison. He arrived to find that Davison had already left. Hartley stayed on, boarding with a local fisherman and his family. A few weeks later he moved in with Francis and Martha Mason on the nearby island of Eastern Points. The artist felt at home immediately with the Masons, and his series of portraits of the family is among his best-known work. However his happiness was once again short lived. In September of 1936, Alty and Donny Mason, and their cousin Allen, were drowned in their boat while attempting to return home late at night. Hartley, who had developed a close relationship with the men, was overwhelmed by the accident and his immediate reaction was to paint Northern Seascape, off the Banks (1936, Milwaukee Art Museum). The painting depicts the dark, brooding sea and sky that took the boys’ lives. Fisherman’s Last Supper (1938, Private Collection) is a poignant portrait of the family and a memorial to the two brothers. The painting shows the family in their dining room at the evening meal. Eight-pointed stars are above the heads of the two brothers, signifying the loss of their lives. (20)

The last few years of his life Hartley continued to paint landscapes and still lifes. He also began painting portraits of his friends and those he admired. His figures are large and blocky, almost filling the canvas. Works such as Portrait of Albert Pinkham Ryder (1938-1939, Edith A. and Milton Lowenthal) and Cleophas, Master of the Gila Gray (1938-1939, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), are boldly painted, emphasizing the power of the painted image. The last of his works include several paintings of men at the beach, Canuck Yanjee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine (1940-1941, Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) and On the Beach (1940, Private Collection.) Each depicts strong, healthy young men and has strong homoerotic overtones. (21) Perhaps the most significant of his final figure paintings is Christ Held by Half-Naked Men (1940-1941, Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). Hartley shows a contemporary Deposition with Christ as focal point. He is cradled in the arms of a shirtless man, with seven other men behind them—a visual summation of the pain, suffering and personal loss Hartley had endured throughout his life. The artist died in 1943.

(1) Gail R. Stott, Marsden Hartley (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988): 12.
(2) According to Stott, Hartley also spent hours during the winter studying the butterfly and rock collections at New York’s Museum of Natural History, valuing it as much as any art museum.
(3) Little is known of Hartley’s life from 1900-1905, however, according to letters to friend Richard Tweedy, Hartley considered going into the Episcopal ministry for a period of time. The letters also reveal that his religious fervency and his love for nature and art were closely allied. See Stott, 14.
(4) Stott, 14-15.
(5) “The Eight” included George Luks, Robert Henri, John Sloan, William Glackens, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Everett Shinn. Each of these artists is included in the Museum’s collection.
(6) Scholars know that von Freyburg and Hartley were very close, and believe that they were lovers.
(7) See Stott, 37.
(8) Hartley, like Picasso and Matisse, painted Gertrude Stein’s portrait. Entitled One Portrait of One Woman (c. 1916, University Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis), the painting does not contain a single figure. A response to Stein’s abstract portrayal of him in a play entitled IIIIIIIIIII, the painting is a brilliant cacophony of red, white, and blue. The word “MOI” is placed at the bottom center of the canvas, just below a teacup against a series of arches. According to Stott, it conveys Stein’s impressive personality in both abstract and concrete terms. See Stott, 39.
(9) Stott, 53.
(10)Ibid, 88.
(11) Ibid, 92.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Jeanne Hokin, Pinnacles & Pyramids: The Art of Marsden Hartley (Albuquerqe: University of New Mexico Press, 1993): 83.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Hokin explains that Crane was one of the most controversial of American poets who emerged from the Midwest during the 1920s. Crane was a homosexual, and his relationship with Hartley, while not intimate, extended over a number of years. Unlike Hartley, however, Crane defiantly flaunted his homosexuality in what was a repressive social atmosphere.
(16) Hokin, p. 86.
(17) Hartley described his plan for the memorial in this way: “It has a very mad look I wish it to have—there is a ship foundering—a sun, a moon, two triangular clouds—a bell with an ‘8’ on it—symbolizing the eight bells—or noon when he jumped off—and around the bell are a lot of men’s eyes—that look up from below to see who the new lodger is to be—on one cloud will be the number 33—Hart’s age—and according to some occult beliefs is the dangerous age of man—for if he survives 33—he lives on Christ was supposed to be 33” Hartley to Adelaide Kuntz, December 5, 1933, Hartley Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, quoted in Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, Marsden Hartley, (New Haven and London: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 2000): 134.
(18) Kornhauser, 133.
(19) Hartley to Kuntz, February 3, 1934 and November 4, 1933, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, quoted in Scott, p. 101.
(20) Stott, p. 110.
(21) See Randall A Griffey, “Encoding the Homoerotic: Marsden Hartley’s Last Figure Paintings,” in Kornhauser, pp. 206-287.

Letha Clare Robertson, 6 July 2004
(ed. MLA/20 July 2004)

Image credit: Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946), Marsden Hartley, 1916, gelatin silver print, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Gift of Marsden Hartley, by exchange, and Gift of Grace M. Mayer, by exchange, 2005, 2005.100.290, Photograph courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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