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The Return of the Native Marsden Hartley: American Modernist

by Joe Phalen, Editor,

I am not a “book of the month” artist, Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) wrote his sister at the end of his life, and I do not paint pretty pictures; but when I am no longer here my name will register forever in the history of American art.

Hartley was the most daring and original of the group of first generation modernist artists whom Alfred Stieglitz brought together in the early years of the 20th century. Yet these very qualities worked against the full recognition of his achievement in his own lifetime and for decades afterward. The retrospective in 2003 at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC offered a long-overdue survey of this restless yet resourceful maverick whose work now stands revealed for its exemplary “boldness, jubilance, freshness and élan”, as John Updike wrote in the New York Review of Books.

Hartley’s mother died in 1885. When his father subsequently remarried, he moved to Cleveland – leaving Marsden behind to be raised by an older sister. He felt himself “left alone on the doorstep of the world.” While finding comfort sketching the insects and flowers amid the spectacular mountains and seascapes of the rock-ribbed state, he was “in psychology an orphan, in consciousness a lone left thing left to make its way out for all time after that by itself.”

The crucial event of his youth proved to be a book. When a teacher in art school gave him a copy of Emerson’s essays it proved such a revelation that he carried it around in his pocket for at five years “reading it on all occasions as a priest reads his Latin breviary…”

By 1899, he was in New York frequenting the circle of the late Walt Whitman. Hartley’s first extant painting, Walt Whitman’s House [right], is a somber homage to the poet whose work openly celebrated male friendship and all kinds of love. The small study (which served as a frontispiece to a book about Whitman) portrays nothing beyond the dark windows and closed doors of the poet’s abode in Camden, New Jersey.

More revealing, in fact, transcendental, are the brooding and expansive Maine landscapes Storm Clouds, Maine [left] and Carnival of Autumn which caught the acute eye of Stieglitz who began exhibiting the mystical naturalist in his avant garde gallery “291” side by side with the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin and Arthur Dove.

Despite disagreements and doubts, Stieglitz subsidized Hartley and even funded his first trip to Europe at the age of thirty-five to complete his “artist’s education.” For months in Paris under the mentorship of Gertrude Stein he pondered Cézanne’s revolutionary compositions and visited the studios of her friends the equally radical Picasso and Matisse. Yet Hartley was soon disillusioned with the “sickliness” and “mediocrity” of the run of the mill French artists: “If there was ever a more ridiculous lot of males as a clan it is these Frenchmen.”

Hartley found the Germans more to his liking. Given the Teutonic philosophical roots of American Transcendentalism in such thinkers as Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, it is not all surprising that he found more of a spiritual affinity with the artists of German high culture than with the French. He was invited to exhibit his work with Kandinsky, Klee, Franz Marc and other members of the Blue Rider group in Munich. But it was Imperial Berlin, the homosexual capital of Europe, which the closeted Hartley found particularly fascinating.. In a letter to Stieglitz he actually used the g-word. “I have lived rather gaily in the Berlin fashion — with all that implies.”

Hartley’s three years there extended deep into World War I. A considerable contingent of Berlin’s gay population was in the military. From November 1914 through the fall of 1915 Hartley painted more than a dozen powerfully emblematic paintings, which he called his “War Motifs.” Also known as the German Officer paintings, the fourteen extant works in this series pay tribute to the idea of male comradeship and eulogize one particular comrade the dead officer Karl Von Freyburg who may have been Hartley’s lover.

These powerful abstract paintings combining cubism and expressionism now widely viewed as the best of his career were controversial in their time. Viewed as celebrating German militarism and imperialism when the United States was understandably hostile to such things, they did not sell. In a note accompanying the New York exhibit on 1916, Hartley further obfuscated his already hidden intentions: “The forms are only those which I have observed casually from day to day. There is no hidden symbolism whatsoever in them… Things under observation, just pictures of any day, any hour. I have expressed only what I have seen. They are merely consultations of the eye-in no sense problem; my notion of the purely pictorial.”

Hartley spent the next two decades wandering through New York, Paris, Berlin, Aix-en-Provence, Bermuda, Santa Fe, Mexico City, and Provincetown in search of what he would only find back home in his native Maine. In his poem Return of the Native (1932) he declares himself now “the painter from Maine.” Back home he found the heroic subjects for which he searching: the dramatic silhouette of Mt. Katahdin, the deep wilderness of Maine’s great forest, and the craggy forms of its famous coastlines.

He returned as well to the early expressionistic inspiration of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Eugene O’Neill. Early in his career he had explained Ryder’s attraction for him. Painters such as Pissarro, Cézanne and Seurat, he said, came to sight as “logicians of color” when compared to the work of Ryder who was outside this mould, and whose creations gave stimulus his “already tormented imagination.”

Hartley had known O’Neill since their Provincetown days. He had watched the career of this most commercial uncompromising and intellectually ambitious of all American playwrights with a mixture of envy and emulation. As Barbara Rose points out in her excellent book American Art since 1900, Hartley now followed Eugene O’Neill’s paradigmatic lead in extracting tragic drama from prosaic realities of the lives of simple fishermen, going so far as to write his own poetic tragedy set at sea.

Hartley actually lived and worked alongside a family of Nova Scotia fisherman and found himself falling in love with two of the sons of the household. Both of the boys drowned at sea. The tragic feelings inspired by their memory are given expression in his pieces entitled Fisherman’s Last Supper (1938 and 1940-41) as well as his individual portraits of the family members.

Unlike previous Hartley exhibits this one stresses his figurative paintings of muscular fisherman and athletes. These audacious works convey a strong sense of his feel for the human body and his belief that painting should seek to capture the vitality present in its human subjects. Hilton Kramer calls these items the boldest paintings of male figures in the history of American art.

Equally arresting are Marsden’s late portraits, which include renditions of his heroes such as Abraham Lincoln, John Donne and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Sustained Comedy [right], a self-portrait that was never publicly identified as such, is the most astonishing. This work transforms the aging, homely and shy Hartley into a young bleached blonde gay stud complete with earrings, butterfly tattoos and a pumped up torso bedecked with a tank top. Contemporary taste has finally caught up with Hartley’s revelation of himself.

These late works show Hartley at the height of his expressive powers. We see him combining the lessons of modernism with his uniquely personal vision. Marsden’s late art was posed to celebrate the experience of simple and direct contact with the great Maine outdoors and with one’s fellow human beings. Mountains, forests, coasts and human beings are each in their own way manifestations of the natural order by which Marsden was fascinated.

The lavishly illustrated catalogue, edited by curator Betsy Kornhauser of the Wadsworth Athenaeum, includes substantial scholarly essays on every aspect of Hartley’s career.