Marsden Hartley

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) was an American painter whose finest, most original works depict Maine's rocky shoreline and the fishermen who depend upon the sea for their livelihood.

Marsden Hartley's family left England to settle in Maine, where he was born. His first drawings were inspired by his interest in natural history. He studied on a scholarship at the Cleveland School of Art (1892-1898). Then he went to New York City to study painting under William Merritt Chase and Frank Dumond.

Hartley's earliest paintings after leaving school are impressionist and suggest the influence of the Italian painter Giovanni Segantini, whose work Hartley knew only through reproductions. Alfred Stieglitz gave Hartley his first exhibition at his "291" gallery. The show consisted mostly of "black landscapes, " done in the manner of Albert P. Ryder.

In 1912 Hartley traveled to Paris, Munich, and Berlin. Although he experimented with cubism, in Germany he discovered the style which provided the expressive pictorial elements he would develop during the rest of his career. He exhibited with the Blaue Reiter group in Munich and made friends with Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Paul Klee. A characteristic painting of this expressionist phase is Portrait of a German Officer (1914). Here Hartley expresses military pomp by showing only the officer's epaulets, abstracted with heightened color in contrast with coarse, black contours. This emblematic approach was modified some 3 years later when he turned to Paul Cézanne's work for direction. The influence of Cézanne is evident in Hartley's work as late as 1928.

In 1930 Hartley returned to America, where, except for brief visits to Mexico and Germany, he remained, doing his finest work. In Nova Scotia and in Bangor, Maine, he painted the craggy shoreline, dramatizing the dolmenlike rocks that were tilted as if to pit their bulk against a surging sea and a threatening sky. The sailboats that venture out in this inhospitable setting epitomize human indomitability and man's skill at harnessing natural powers. Hartley's most impressive paintings are his "archaic memory portraits" of Nova Scotia seamen, first exhibited in 1938. Hieratic and frontal, these figures are as austere and spiritualized as the saints depicted in Russian icons. It is as if these fishermen and their wives are immobilized and transfixed by the constant fear inherent in their perilous profession. Hartley painted a series of pictures of Mt. Katahdin, emulating, as he noted, the Japanese painter Ando Hiroshige, and, one might add, Cézanne.

Hartley also wrote verse. His first book, Twenty-five Poems, was published in Paris in 1922. He died at Ellsworth, Maine, on Sept. 2, 1943.

Further Reading on Marsden Hartley

Elizabeth McCausland, Marsden Hartley (1952), is an extensive work on the artist. The Museum of Modern Art's catalog Lyonel Feininger—Marsden Hartley (1944) includes a brief text with some statements by the artist and a chronology of significant biographical events.

Additional Biography Sources

Hartley, Marsden, Somehow a past: the autobiography of Marsden Hartley, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.

Ludington, Townsend, Marsden Hartley: the biography of an American artist, Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.

Robertson, Bruce, Marsden Hartley, New York: Abrams in association with the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1995.