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Marsden Hartley
Holdings (10)
10 paintings

Wikipedia About Marsden Hartley

Marsden Hartley (January 4, 1877 - September 2, 1943) was an American Modernist painter, poet, and essayist. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Marsden Hartley, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Although he radically modified his idiosyncratic style many times—often in response to the latest trends in European modernism—Marsden Hartley’s oeuvre is distinctively his own: a blend of homegrown American transcendentalism, formal inventiveness, and deeply felt emotional response to the visible world. According to his biographers,1 his life was defined by conflicting needs for both solitude and human companionship, which kept him in constant, restless motion (as an adult he never remained in any one lodging for longer than ten months) and complicated his personal relationships. But it also made for an astonishing range of experiences: he lived in more than two dozen cities on two continents; he was associated with the Munich-based Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), New York Dada’s Societé Anonyme, Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon, and Alfred Stieglitz’s galleries 291 and An American Place. His stylistic influences included, to varying degrees, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Charles Demuth. Yet somehow (perhaps in spite of himself) there is an unmistakable Hartleyesque flavor to all his work, whether landscape, still life, or portraiture.

An obvious talent at a young age, Hartley attended art schools in Cleveland and New York on a series of scholarships and grants. His youthful enthusiasms were mystical and spiritual in nature: he was entranced by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson; briefly considered becoming a priest; and spent the summer of 1907 at Green Acre, a utopian community in Maine where he was introduced to Eastern religions. During these years he concentrated on rendering the fleeting moods of nature, especially mountains (to him, they were “entities of a grandiose character” with “profound loneliness”) and skies (“it is in reality the sky that makes a scene vivid”2 ). One of the earliest known Hartley works, Storm Clouds, Maine (1906–1907), is a dramatic duet between the two and also a portrait of Speckled Mountain in the town of Lovell, Maine.3

In 1909, Hartley had his first solo exhibition at 291, New York’s most progressive gallery. It was run by Alfred Stieglitz, who became an important mentor and financial supporter during Hartley’s life of almost continuous poverty. With Stieglitz’s help, the artist made his first trip to Europe in 1912. He felt instantly at home there and for the next two decades shuttled between continents as world events and his finances allowed. During those turbulent years, his aesthetic approach vacillated between the formal and the expressionistic, though all of his works—from semi-abstractions to quotidian still lifes—sound a slightly mad, subterranean note of excitement that keeps rigor at arm’s length. Among his most powerful paintings are the mystical studies of military parades, insignia, and uniforms made in Berlin during World War I, where Hartley was living “rather gayly in the Berlin fashion—with all that implies …”4 Some of his most radical forays into nonobjectivity were the Movements, based on forms of sailboats, that he painted in 1916 while summering in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with radical journalist John Reed. More sober were the still life and landscape studies made in southern France during the 1920s, while he was firmly under the spell of Cézanne.

Hartley returned permanently to the United States in 1934. He was fifty-seven years old, destitute, and still without the critical success he felt he deserved. The defining experience for the last decade of his life was his friendship with the Mason family, with whom he boarded during 1935 and 1936 in a remote Nova Scotia fishing community. The Masons welcomed him warmly as one of their own, and he basked in their close family life and their “enviable balance between the material and the spiritual worlds.”5 After the two Mason boys, Donny and Alty, were drowned in a storm in 1936, Hartley was heartbroken, especially at the loss of twenty-eight-year-old Alty, to whom he was especially close. His many tributes to the family include powerful, idealized portraits such as Cleophas, Master of the “Gilda Grey” (1938–1939), Hartley’s representation of Francis Mason, the family patriarch, whom he described as “so dark and rugged he is & the boys also. All of them look like cinnamon bears, & are terrifying powerful, & so quiet & childlike.”6 In his brutish paw Cleophas gently holds a rose, a flower Hartley associated with all the Mason men but especially Alty, who often wore one behind his ear. Hartley’s last memorial to the family was on his easel when he died in 1943—the tender, sensual, transcendent bouquet entitled Roses.

The Walker Art Center has an extraordinary collection of Hartley’s works because of the artist’s connection to Hudson D. Walker, grandson of the institution’s founder, T. B. Walker. Hudson ran an art gallery in New York from 1937 to 1941, and became Hartley’s dealer after Stieglitz had finally grown tired of the artist’s demanding personality. Hudson vigorously promoted the work, even organizing a traveling exhibition that was presented at the Walker in 1940.7 Most of the ten Hartley paintings in the collection were gifts from Hudson or his immediate family.

  1. A standard work is Barbara Haskell’s Marsden Hartley, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980).

  2. Quoted in ibid., 17.

  3. Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, Marsden Hartley, exh. cat. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 288.

  4. Hartley in a letter to Alfred Stieglitz, March 15, 1915, quoted in Haskell, Marsden Hartley, 31.

  5. Hartley in a letter to Adelaide Kuntz, September 9, 1936, printed in Gerald Ferguson, ed., Marsden Hartley and Nova Scotia, exh. cat. (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, 1987), 45.

  6. Hartley, letter to Adelaide Kuntz, November 4, 1935, printed in ibid., 41. Francis was the model for the protagonist of Hartley’s story “Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy.” The artist finished this tale of Canadian fisherfolk in late 1936, after the drowning of Donny and Alty, and used the fictitious names for his series of memorial portraits. “Gilda Grey” was the name of the Mason family boat. Hartley’s story is published in full in Ferguson, Marsden Hartley and Nova Scotia.

  7. The exhibition Marsden Hartley opened in Boston in late 1939 and traveled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana; San Antonio, Texas; Portland, Maine; San Francisco, California; Lincoln, Nebraska; and the Walker, before ending its tour in early 1940 at the St. Paul Art Gallery.

Rothfuss, Joan. “Marsden Hartley.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center