Marsden Hartley - Biography and Legacy
American Painter and Writer
Biography of Marsden Hartley
Childhood and Education
Edmund Hartley was the youngest of nine children born to English immigrant parents Thomas and Eliza Jane Hartley. The death of his mother when he was eight years old affected him profoundly; many years later, Hartley explained, "I was to know complete isolation from that moment forward." His family was soon after divided, with Hartley forced to live with an older sister in Auburn, Maine. To assuage his loneliness, he found solace in the comforting embrace of nature, something he would cling to throughout his life. Hartley's love of the outdoors also led him to imbibe the writings of American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in addition to the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Despite having left school at fifteen to work in a shoe manufacturing factory, Hartley's art education began in 1893 after moving to Ohio to live with other siblings and his newly remarried father. He began taking lessons with local artists, and in 1898 he enrolled at the Cleveland School of Art. His skills attracted the attention of a school trustee who gave him a five-year stipend to study art in New York, which commenced in 1899. He studied with William Merritt Chase, and then spent four years at the National Academy of Design. It was during this time that Hartley also met the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, who would have a profound influence on Hartley's painting.
In 1906 Hartley briefly returned to Lewiston, Maine to teach painting, and in an act of reinvention, he took his stepmother's maiden name as his own first name, becoming Marsden Hartley. From the earliest moments of his career, beginning with the summers spent between his years of study, travel was important. Inspiration from the landscape where he lived and the people he met would manifest itself thematically in the subjects of many of his works and he established a pattern of spending periods of time in near isolation in nature followed by stays in cities.
In 1909, Hartley met Alfred Stieglitz in New York City, a meeting that would have significant repercussions for his career. The two quickly became friends, and Stieglitz introduced him to a circle of artists, including Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Paul Strand, who were all exploring modern approaches to painting and photography. Stieglitz gave Hartley his first one - man show at the famed 291 Gallery in 1909.
Enjoying the company of other writers and artists that he met in New York, Hartley was often found sitting with them at Kriel's Bakery where he was allowed to eat for free by the sympathetic owner. Despite his lack of funds, Hartley paid attention to his appearance, which fellow artist Alfred Dreymborg noted, stating, "When spring came, if he could afford nothing else, Marsden managed to buy a gardenia for his buttonhole."
After a successful exhibition at 291 in 1912, Hartley set out for Europe and found artistic inspiration and comradery in Paris, where he met famed collector Gertrude Stein and visited her salon. While she purchased four of his works, he was most impressed by the paintings of other artists she owned, including those by Pablo Picasso. Hartley recalled of the Picassos, "they seemed to burn my head off - I felt indeed like a severed head living off itself by mystical evacuation."
It was also in Paris that he met German sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck and his cousin Karl von Freyburg, who was a lieutenant in the Prussian army. The two introduced Hartley to the work and writing of Wassily Kandinsky and the German expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, which would have profound influence on his art. Hartley quickly began creating works that embraced the expressionistic style of European modernism.
In 1913 he visited Rönnebeck and von Freyburg in Berlin and soon moved there. Many scholars believe that Hartley soon developed a serious romantic relationship with von Freyburg. He became fascinated with the pageantry of the German military uniforms and parades. While German society adhered to strict mores about gender and sexuality, Berlin's bohemian society embraced sexual liberation, and it seems that Hartley in turn found himself at home there. He wrote to Stieglitz, "I have lived rather gayly in the Berlin fashion - with all that implies." Von Freyburg died in battle in October 1914, and Hartley honored his love with a symbolic portrait, Portrait of a German Officer (1914). He continued to paint pictures related to this painting, suggesting he felt the loss of his partner deeply. Fiercely private, little is known of Hartley's relationships. He had friendships with other gay men during his career, including the painter Charles Demuth and the poet Hart Crane but little is known of his romantic attachments.
World War I forced Hartley to return to America in 1915. Had he been able to stay in Germany where his modern style was being recognized and accepted, his early career might have fared better and developed more quickly; however, his most recent works shown after his return were not well received. The German-inspired themes made them a hard sell, given the anti-German sentiment of the time. Disheartened at being home, Hartley responded with long periods of travel, including a trip to Bermuda with Charles Demuth in 1917; stays in Maine; and two years in the southwest, including New Mexico and California, where he began a series of works focused on the landscape.
Upon returning to New York City in 1920 he was named first secretary of the Société Anonyme, founded by Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp. Here he also befriended Man Ray and briefly immersed himself in the Dada art and literary culture. Writing, which had long been an interest of his, resulted in the publication of Adventures in the Arts (1921), a collection of essays on artists and vaudeville performances. He would go on to publish other works including his autobiography Somehow a Past (1933).
The key years of Hartley's career were inspired by his numerous travels around Europe and the United States. He moved back to Berlin in November 1921 and began a series of still lifes he would return to periodically. In addition, the landscapes of Italy and France, where he moved in 1925 and lived for three years, are reflected in his paintings. The receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship, which funded a year of painting outside of the United States, enabled Hartley to travel to Mexico in 1932. Here he was inspired not only by nature but also the mysticism and spiritualism of the Mexican people.
Traveling alone suited the artist's solitary nature, and becoming part of organized institutions proved difficult for him. For instance, when he returned to New York in February 1934, he joined the federal government's Works Progress Administration, but he was not able to abide by the organization's regimented structure. His frequent travels also created a rift between the artist and Stieglitz who decided he would no longer pay for the storage of Hartley's works. In an angered response to this betrayal, the artist chose his fifty-eighth birthday to dramatically burn one hundred of his works to free himself of the financial burden.
A major source of inspiration late in Hartley's career was a trip to Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia where he stayed with the Mason family. The landscape, the family dynamic, as well as the tragic death of the family's two sons and a cousin by drowning on September 19, 1936 would appear as themes in many of the artist's later works and marked the beginning of an increased focus on portraiture and still lifes. He would continue to develop these interests in 1941, when after years of travelling, Hartley returned to his home state of Maine. It was during this time that Hartley was able to make the long anticipated trip to Mount Katahdin and create a visual record of his journey.
Despite declining heath, Hartley painted voraciously in these last years in Maine. Of this period he stated, "My work is getting stronger and stronger and more intense all the time... I have such a rush of new energy and notions coming into my head, over my horizon like chariots of fire that all I want is freedom to step aside and execute them." In an ending, similar to much of his life, he died of heart failure quietly and alone.
The Legacy of Marsden Hartley
Marsden Hartley played a key role in ushering in and shaping American modernism in the early-20th century. While he was not alone in this, his unique approach to subject matter, color, and brushstroke that differentiated him from his peers was largely a result of his heavy immersion in European modernism, which he emulated and used as the foundation for his own art. Over the years, Hartley's legacy has been uneven among scholars; first, in part, because of his subject matter of German themes and homosexual innuendo, and second because of the rise of and preference for Regionalism during the latter part of his life.
His reputation, though, gained momentum, and his paintings have influenced contemporary artists. This influence was on exhibit most recently in a 2015 show at New York City's Driscoll Babcock Galleries in which seven contemporary artists - Katherine Bradford, Jennifer Coates, Holly Coulis, Rachael Gorchov, David Humphrey, Danielle Orchard, and Robin F. Williams - who have acknowledged the influence of Hartley in their own work, were asked to create paintings in response to key works by the artist.