Praising Marsden Hartley, Great American Painter

Of the artists who made up the first generation of American modernist painters in the early years of this century, Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) has long seemed the most accomplished, and this view of the artist’s distinction has been confirmed in two current exhibitions of his work. One is the show organized by the Ackland Art Museum of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in collaboration with the Babcock Galleries in New York. That show is currently on view at the Babcock Galleries, 724 Fifth Avenue, through June 20. The other is the traveling exhibition of the Hartleys from the Ione and Hudson D. Walker Collection at the University of Minnesota. I got to see that exhibition at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art before it closed on April 26. It will not be coming to New York, alas, but next spring it is scheduled to be shown at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton (May 23 to July 25, 1999).

In the kind of intellectual energy he brought to his artistic endeavors, Hartley was in many respects closer in spirit to his European contemporaries than to the American painters of his own generation. He was an artist with a keen interest in ideas, and he had a larger view of the artistic vocation than was common in American cultural life when he set out to establish himself as a painter at the turn of the century. He was a voracious reader and an interesting writer in addition to being a brilliant painter, and he was possessed of a personality that succeeded in engaging the interest of circles as different–and as demanding–as Alfred Stieglitz’s in New York, Gertrude Stein’s in Paris, and the Franz Marc-Vasily Kandinsky “Blue Rider” group in Munich. Even before the Armory Show of 1913 introduced the European modernists to a large–and largely ignorant–American public for the first time, Hartley had won a place in the ranks of the international avant-garde.

This was a remarkable feat for a young man from the provinces who lacked money, connections and much in the way of a formal education, and whose situation was made no easier–particularly in America–by his homosexuality. The provinces, in Hartley’s case, were the mill town of Lewiston, Maine, where he was born, the youngest of eight children of poor English immigrant parents, and Cleveland, Ohio, to which he moved with his family at the age of 16. He had dropped out of school to work in a shoe factory before leaving Maine, and the only formal education he received after that was in drawing and painting, first in Cleveland and then in New York.

Cleveland turned out to be an unexpected stroke of good fortune for Hartley. It was the gift of a volume of Emerson’s Essays from his drawing teacher in Cleveland that set Hartley on his own autodidactic course as a reader and writer. And it was on the basis of his work as an art student in Cleveland that in 1899 he was offered a five-year stipend (at $450 a year) that brought him to New York, where he remained until his departure for Europe in 1912.

Hartley adored Europe, especially Germany, but Maine nonetheless served as an abiding inspiration for his painting both early and late in his development. Even during his first years in New York, he was spending his summers in his native state, painting its landscape, and in his last years he returned to Maine to paint some of his greatest pictures. Yet it was, of course, the modernist paintings he encountered wherever he was that did much to shape his progress as a painter. The earliest painting in the Babcock exhibition is a marvelous Maine landscape, of trees and clouds dominated by a mountainside, called Autumn Impressional (circa 1906), and in the traveling show drawn from the Walker Collection there are several smaller Maine landscapes from 1908-9 of the same quality–pictures that we would now characterize as Post-Impressionist. They were apparently influenced by a Swiss painter, Giovanni Segantini, who is now largely remembered–on this side of the Atlantic, anyway–for his role in Hartley’s development.

It was presumably on the basis of such paintings that Hartley was given a one-man show at the Rowlands Gallery in Boston in 1908, an exhibition that won him the admiration of Maurice Prendergast and his brother Charles, who put Hartley in touch with William Glackens in New York. In 1909 Hartley met Stieglitz, who promptly gave him the first of his exhibitions at the “291” gallery, and 1909 was also the year that Hartley discovered the paintings of Albert Pinkham Ryder, which would remain the most important American influence on his own painting.

“291” was, of course, the principal venue for modernist art in America at that time. It was there, for example, that Hartley first saw the paintings of Matisse in 1910, and these had an immediate effect on his use of color. The following year, he had his first glimpse of Cézanne in the Havemeyer Collection, and that encounter similarly effected immediate changes in his painting. The monumental Still Life of 1912 in the Walker Collection gives us breathtaking proof of the intelligence, energy and speed with which Hartley was able to assimilate such radical innovations and make them a permanent part of his own pictorial esthetic.

By the time Hartley was ready–thanks, in part, to Stieglitz’s support–to depart for Europe in the spring of 1912, he was no longer a newcomer to the modern movement. Yet it was unquestionably in Europe, first in Paris and then in Munich and Berlin, that Hartley’s painting attained a new level of invention and independence. Seeing once again some of the finest examples of the symbolic abstractions that Hartley produced in Europe in the years 1913-1915– Abstraction With Flowers (1913) in the Walker Collection, and both the Musical Theme (Oriental Symphony ) (1912-13) and The Iron Cross (1915) in the Babcock exhibition, among others–I thought of a line that the American writer Paul Horgan once wrote about the great Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin. As soon as Chaliapin makes his first entrance as Mephistopheles in Charles Gounod’s Faust , wrote Horgan, “Everything at once takes on a new nerve.”

It was indeed “a new nerve” that Hartley brought to these paintings, an inspiration compounded of esthetic aspiration and personal emancipation. Pictorially, Hartley’s leap into abstract painting owed much to the Cubism that was then dominating the Paris avant-garde and to the theories of mystical abstraction governing the Blue Rider esthetic in Munich. Yet the sheer exuberance of Hartley’s abstract paintings in this period was also a reflection of the sexual freedom he seems to have enjoyed in Germany for the first and probably the last time in his life. Not until his last years in Maine would Hartley again venture to give such explicit expression to his erotic affinities.

In the nearly three decades that followed Hartley’s so-called “German” period, which undoubtedly brought him his greatest personal happiness, his painting underwent many changes. The most important was his return to representation, which in Hartley’s case meant mainly still life and landscape. (His figure paintings, which are now among his most admired works, are largely the product of his “late” period in Maine, when he was also painting some of his greatest landscapes.) Those changes have sometimes proved to be bewildering even to his admirers, yet they, too, may now be seen to be a reflection of what was occurring elsewhere in the modern movement in the period between the two world wars.

That period was not a happy one for Hartley. He was frequently short of money, he felt unappreciated (often with good reason) and believed himself to be an alien in his native land. It was a blow when even Stieglitz seemed to lose interest in his work. Yet through that long period of travail he continued to create pictures of extraordinary quality and power, as both of the current Hartley exhibitions attest. The fact is, he was in those last years a more heroic figure than he was seen to be at the time, and a desperately lonely man. And to the end he remained the most accomplished painter of his American generation.

Praising Marsden Hartley, Great American Painter