Marsden Hartley is best remembered for his role as a painter, poet, and writer. Often combining thick brushstrokes and vibrant colors, Hartley painted deeply expressive scenes, most notoriously of the Atlantic coastline and the fishermen who labored along it.
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On January 4, 1877, Marsden Hartley (baptized Edmund Hartley) was born in Lewistown, ME. His parents, Eliza Jane Horbury and Thomas Hartley, were cotton mill workers who emigrated from England. At an early age, his life was marked by tragedy. One sister and both of his brothers died in infancy, leaving him the youngest of the family. When his mother died in 1885, his father sent him away to live with an older sister in Auburn, Maine. It was not until 1893 that his father, with new bride Martha Marsden, finally reunited the entire family in Cleveland, OH.
The young Hartley took his first painting lessons with landscape artist, John Semon. Determined to succeed, he won a scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art. Soon after, he was awarded a stipend from Anna Walworth, a trustee of the school, to study art in New York. At the age of 22, he began his art training at the William Merritt Chase School of Art in New York City. However, the tuition was far too high for Hartley’s modest stipend. For the rest of his life, Hartley struggled to achieve economic stability. After his first year, he transferred to the nearby, economical National Academy of Design.
In 1906, Hartley returned to his hometown of Lewistown, ME, where his family was now living. He also took a job as a handyman at the Eastern religious settlement, Green Acre, in Eliot, ME. Through his association with Green Acre, he secured his first exhibition at the local home of Mrs. Ole Bull. With the success of the show, Hartley moved to Boston. In 1908, he held an exhibition at the Rowlands Gallery. With the aid of local collectors, he received a letter of introduction to meet painter William Glackens (1870-1938) in New York.
Upon his return to New York in 1909, Hartley quickly gained the favor of Glackens, who arranged a small exhibition of the artist’s work. Hartley’s paintings soon caught the attention of photographer and 291 gallery owner, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). In May, Stieglitz exhibited at the 291 the first extensive exhibition of Hartley’s paintings. The show was successful in introducing Hartley to the New York avant-garde. However, its failure to sell any paintings put Hartley into a deep depression. He found some financial relief when the art dealer N.E. Montross offered him a modest stipend to continue painting in Maine. For the next three years, he painted in near isolation and only on occasion returned to New York, a pattern he repeated throughout his life.
With the help of Stieglitz and painter Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), Hartley made his first trip to Europe in mid-April of 1912. Once in Paris, he became associated with a group of Germans that gathered frequently at the Restaurant Thomas. The group included sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck (1885-1947) and his cousin Karl von Freyburg, a German officer. It was within the friendship of this crowd and the ease of European culture that Hartley first openly explored his homosexuality. While in Paris, Hartley also frequented the now infamous Saturday evening art salons of Gertrude and Leo Stein.
In 1913, Hartley moved to Berlin. With a deep interest in all things German, the artist was warmly greeted. He was introduced to artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and other members of the Blue Rider group. Despite the onset of World War I, Hartley remained in Berlin and continued to paint. When he soon learned that his close friend and possible lover von Freyburg had died in one of the foremost battles of the war, he was struck with a sadness that immediately inspired the creation of some of his greatest works. As the war waged on, he worked diligently on his abstract series of German officers. In October 1915, forty-five of his European paintings on show at Müchener Graphik-Verlag, a gallery in Berlin, were met with critical acclaim.
However, with the war growing worse by the day, Hartley was forced to return to New York in December of 1915. When his German officer series was shown at 291 the following spring, both the artist and his paintings were met with prejudicial reviews. On display in America during a heated time, Hartley’s ambivalent paintings were read by many critics as pro-German and anti-American. Following the controversy of the show, a discouraged Hartley retired to Bermuda for the winter. There, he continued to paint and write poetry.
In 1917, Hartley returned to Maine and published his writings for the first time. In the following year, he moved to Taos, NM, where he further explored his interests in Native American art of the Southwest. For the next decade or so, Hartley lived a nomadic life and continued to travel. He returned to Berlin and then moved on to Italy, France, Mexico, and then back to Germany. In 1934, he returned to the States from his last major trip abroad.
During the Great Depression, he participated in the easel project for artists under the Works Project Administration (WPA). In the winter of 1934-35, Hartley underwent a bout of personal depression when he could not find funds to pay for storage. In a melodramatic act on his 58th birthday, Hartley burned around 100 canvases and drawings in order to solve the problem.
By the spring of 1935, he was again in need of a vacation. He traveled up the coastline to Nova Scotia, where he found board with a local fisherman, Francis Mason, and his family. After finding much delight and inspiration in the company of the Mason family, Hartley returned to their home the following summer. Nevertheless, tragedy managed to find Hartley no matter how far from home he was. During his next stay with the Mason family, two of their lively sons died in an unfortunate boating accident. Deeply saddened, Hartley stayed with the Masons through that winter, only never to return again.
With a renewed attention to the Atlantic coast, he spent the remainder of his life in Maine and only on occasion visited the metropolitan cities of New York and Cleveland. In the summer of 1943, his health deteriorated at a rapid pace. On September 2, he died of heart failure in Ellsworth, ME— a town not far from his birthplace. He was 66.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
“I am not a ‘book of the month’ artist and do not paint pretty pictures; but when I am no longer here my name will register forever in the history of American Art and so that’s something too.” — Marsden Hartley
Hartley’s life story was not a familiar one of an early American modernist. His life was troubled by the early deaths of several family members. Over the course of his life, he could never quite adjust to the feelings of isolation that plagued him in his youth. Moreover, his identity as a gay man further estranged him from society. With this in mind, it seems rather appropriate that Hartley created some of his most powerfully expressive works during his bouts of depression and on his trips to fairly remote locales.
The first mature paintings Hartley executed were expressive, Maine landscapes. The snow capped mountains, lush forests, and ominous clouds of the Eastern climate provided a dramatic atmosphere for the artist’s blossoming talent. In these early works, Hartley effortlessly suggests the powerful, divine qualities of nature.
When Hartley moved to New York in 1909, he was submersed in the avant-garde circle of the 291. Through his association with Alfred Stieglitz, Hartley interacted with such artists as Alfred Maurer, Edward Steichen, Max Weber, Abraham Walkowitz, and Marius de Zayas. Straight from the mouths of New York’s top modernists, Hartley learned of the new art movements developing in Europe. At the 291, he studied firsthand the art of Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Auguste Rodin. His New York education undoubtedly had an effect on his style. Over the following years, it evolved to incorporate aspects of European modernism. The most noticeable change was the adoption of primary colors painted in thick, heavy brushstrokes. Over the course of his travels to Europe, his manner developed into a confident, expressionist style.
In as early as 1915, critics noticed similarities between Hartley’s art and that of “the ancient Australians and Indians.” They professed that a spiritual tone was present in his brightly colored, abstract paintings. There assumptions were proven correct when he moved to the Southwest and spent time in Mexico during the 1910s and the early 1930s. The “primitive” figural style of Native American art greatly appealed to Hartley and is especially apparent in his later paintings. By the end of his life, he had come full circle, returning to seclusion and again painting deeply personal landscapes of the Maine coastline.
1877 Born in Lewiston, ME
1885 Mother dies
1889 Father weds Martha Marsden and moves family to Cleveland
1892 Takes art lessons with a local painter, John Semon
1898 Studies at the Cleveland School of Art on scholarship
1899 Awarded a five-year fellowship to study art in New York. Enters the New York School of Art in fall.
1900 Transfers to the National Academy of Design (NAD)
1904 Fellowship ends. Works for Proctor’s Theater Company.
1906 Returns to Lewiston and opens a studio. Revises name to Marsden Hartley.
1907 First exhibition at the home of Mrs. Ole Bull at Green Acre.
1908 Exhibits at Rowlands Gallery in Boston, where a prominent collector, Desmond Fitzgerald purchases his painting.
1909 Returns to New York and is introduced to Alfred Stieglitz. In May, his first major show takes place at Stieglitz’s gallery, 291.
1912 Travels to Paris and is introduced to Gertrude and Leo Stein. Begins “intuitive abstractions.”
1913 Several works included in the Armory Show
1914 Arrives in Berlin. WWI begins.
1915 Exhibits 45 paintings and some drawings at the Müchener Graphik-Verlag, Berlin. Returns to New York
1916 Exhibits “German officer” paintings at Stieglitz’s gallery. Winters in Bermuda.
1917 Essays and poems are first published. Attends Hamilton Easter’s art colony in Ogunquit, ME.
1918 Travels to Taos then on to Santa Fe, NM
1919 Returns to New York
1920 Associates with the New York Dada movement and the Société Anonyme
1921 Returns to Paris for the summer. Moves to Berlin.
1923 Travels throughout Italy
1924 Briefly returns to New York before traveling back to Paris
1925 Moves to Venice
1926 Moves to Aix-en-Provence and over the next several years, takes several trips to Paris, Berlin, and the United States.
1930 Returns to New York
1931 Awarded Guggenheim travel grant
1932 Travels to Mexico City, where he stays for the next year
1933 Sails to Hamburg. Begins to write his autobiography
1934 Returns from final trip to Europe
1935 Destroys 100 paintings and drawings. Visits Nova Scotia before returning to New York
1937 Last show with Stieglitz
1940 Moves to Corea, ME and continues to visit New York
1943 Dies from heart complications in Ellsworth, ME
Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, ME
Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Crocker Art Museum, CA
Currier Gallery of Art, NH
Delaware Art Museum, DE
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, OK
Harvard University Art Museums Database, MA
Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, NM
High Museum of Art, GA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MI
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, MI
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, MO
Newark Museum, NJ
North Carolina Museum of Art, NC
Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University, PA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Portland Art Museum, OR
Portland Museum of Art, ME
Ringling Museum of Art, FL
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
Sheldon Art Gallery, Lincoln, NE
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Terra Foundation for the Arts, Chicago, IL
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, CT
Walker Art Center, MN
Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, MN
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA
Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1907 Home of Mrs. Ole Bull, Green Acre, ME
1908 Rowlands Gallery, Boston, MA
1909, 1912, 1914, 1916-17 291 (Alfred Steiglitz’s gallery), NY
1913 Blue Rider Group, Herbstsalon, Berlin
1913 Armory Show, NY
1914 Max Liebermann, Berlin
1915 Müchener Graphik-Verlag, Berlin
1915 Daniel Gallery, NY
1916 Provincetown, MA
1917 Ogunquit, ME
1917, 1921 Society of Independent Artists, NY
1919-20 Santa Fe, NM
1924-26 Gallery Briant-Robert, Paris
1931, 1933 Salons of America
1932-42, 1980, 1999 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1932-42 Art Institute of Chicago, IL
1933-34, 1939-43 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art
1935-57 Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.
1942 Macbeth Gallery, NY
1944 Museum of Modern Art, NY
1944, 1968 M. Knoedler Gallery, NY
1945 Institute of Modern Art, Boston, MA
1946 Herron School of Art
1951 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
1953, 1979, 1983, 1986 University of Minnesota, MN
1958-59 Roswell Museum, NM
1958, 1960 Babcock Galleries, NY
1960-62 American Federation of Arts (Traveling Exhibition)
1962 Bertha Schaefer, Inc., NY
1966 La Jolla Museum of Art, CA
1967 Gropper Art Gallery, Cambridge, MA
1968 University of California, Los Angeles
1969 Bernard Danenberg Galleries, NY
1972 University Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS
1980 Santa Fe East Galleries, NM
1983 M. Diamond Fine Art, NY
1984 Visual Arts Gallery, Florida International University, Miami, FL
1985 Cape Ann Historical Association, Gloucester, MA
1985, 1987, 1990, 1992 Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, NY
1989 Sid Deutsch Gallery, NY
1989 Fred L. Emerson Gallery, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY
1991 Hirschl & Adler Galleries, NY
1995 The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
1995, 1997 Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, MN
1998 Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC
2003 Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, CT
1902 Suydam Silver Medal, National Academy of Design, NY
1931 Guggenheim Travel Grant
1940 J. Henry Scheidt Memorial Prize, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, PA
1942 Fourth Painting Purchase Prize, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
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- 2. Millier, Arthur. “Exhibit Tells Growth of Marsden Hartley.” Los Angeles Times. Oct. 26, 1952. Pg. E6.
- 3. Robertson, Bruce. Marsden Hartley. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.
- 4. Scott, Gail R. Marsden Hartley. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1988.
- 5. Staff Correspondant. “American Artist Astounds Germans.” The New York Times. Dec. 19, 1915. pg. X4.
- 6. Wilson, William. “Marsden Hartley Exhibition Spans 30 Years of Artist’s Life.” Los Angeles Times. Feb. 7, 1972. pg. H8.