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Marsden Hartley: American Modern

September 30, 2005 ­ January 29, 2006


(above: Marsden Hartley, Adelard the Drowned, Master of the "Phantom", circa 1938-1939, oil on academy board, 27 7/8 x 22 inches. Bequest of Hudson D. Walker from the Ione and Hudson D. Walker Collection, Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis)


One of the 20th century's most significant American artists, Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) was at the center of the artistic and cultural vortex known today as American Modernism. A new exhibition coming to the Crocker, Marsden Hartley: American Modern, not only explores the artwork of the man that TIME magazine hailed as "the most brilliantly gifted of the early generation of American modernists" but also the ideas and influences behind his ground-breaking art. (right: Marsden Hartley, Eight Bells Folly: Memorial to Hart Crane, 1933, oil on canvas, 30 5/8 x 39 3/8 inches. Gift of Ione and Hudson D. Walker, Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis)

A painter, poet, critic and artistic rebel, Hartley joined painters Arthur Dove, John Marin and Georgia O'Keeffe, along with photographer Paul Strand, in shaking off the historical weight of convention in the visual arts. Through his association with the circle of radical artists around photographer and impresario Alfred Stieglitz, Hartley soon achieved recognition and fame as a pioneering Modernist.

This retrospective exhibition highlights the evolution of Hartley's art, revealing his persistent effort to stay abreast of change, to come to terms with the dynamics of his world, and to forge his own contribution to it. His paintings reflect his experiences, including his stays in Paris and Berlin from 1912 to 1915, where his abstract style flourished and matured, and his eventual return to America, where he became known for his powerful still lifes and landscapes.


Members' Magazine article by Scott Shields, Ph.D.

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) was at the center of the artistic and cultural vortex known today as American Modernism. Many recognize Hartley as a leading artist from the period, hailed by TIME magazine critic Robert Hughes as "the most brilliantly gifted of the early generation of American modernists." Hartley was a core member of the circle around photographer, dealer and impresario Alfred Stieglitz in New York City, a group that also included painters Arthur Dove, John Marin and Georgia O'Keeffe, and photographer Paul Strand.

A painter, poet, critic and artistic rebel, the artist was born Edmund Hartley on January 4, 1877. His mother died when he was eight years old, and he adopted his stepmother's maiden surname, Marsden, as his first name in 1906. His first real success as an artist came with the late-Impressionist paintings he produced in 1908 and 1909 depicting the mountains of Maine. The strength of these images won Stieglitz's sponsorship. At this initial stage of his career, Hartley was absorbed by the writings and thoughts of 19th-century American Transcendentalist authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. He admired the importance they ascribed to direct, powerful and emotional experiences in nature. (right: Marsden Hartley, Portrait, circa 1914-1915. oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 21 1/2 inches. Bequest of Hudson D. Walker from the Ione and Hudson D. Walker Collection, Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis)

Hartley lived abroad from 1912 to 1915, settling first in Paris and then in Berlin. In those cities and others he visited, he made his way into the most progressive art circles. Working to make a name for himself, he embraced abstraction and is today well recognized for his series of "portraits" of German officers. Several of these paintings deal covertly with his intimate relationship with Karl von Freyburg, a German officer killed at the beginning of World War I. Upon his return to America in 1915, Hartley initially continued to produce abstractions, but returned two years later to representational painting, producing landscapes and still lifes.

In his embrace of landscape and still-life painting, Hartley took part in an art movement known as Regionalism. Regionalism, also called American Scene Painting, championed an unadorned realism and the straightforward depiction of ordinary folk, everyday life and American places. Going back to Maine, Hartley painted rugged landscape settings and common people. These mountain and coastal scenes and fisherfolk subjects are Hartley's contribution to this important moment in American cultural history.

Returning to his Maine roots brought Hartley's artistic approach full circle as he once again embraced intuition as a source for art-making. He had years earlier worked to portray "the God-spirit in the mountains," and again began to transfer his subjective feelings to canvas with renewed enthusiasm. His final landscapes transmit his emotional response to the grandeur of nature.

Hartley died in 1943, having witnessed staggering changes in all spheres of life and culture. The many shifts that he made in his art reveal his persistent effort to stay abreast of change, to come to terms with the dynamics of his world and to forge his own contribution. In a generation of radicals shaking off the weight of convention and tradition, he developed one of the most original artistic voices of the 20th century.

Marsden Hartley: American Modern is a retrospective exhibition culled from the artist's own estate, now in the collection of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. This Minneapolis museum holds the largest collection of the artist's work, which is now on tour throughout the country.


About the author:

Scott Shields is Chief Curator of the Crocker Art Museum.


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these articles:

articles and essays on "American Scene" painting and "regionalism":

and this video:

Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye is a 90 minute 2000 American Masters series WNET video directed by Perry Miller Adato.

From the Back Cover: "Stieglitz, who is revered as one of the most innovative photographers of the 20th century, played a primary role in fostering new talent. Through his three galleries in New York City, he mentored emerging artists such as Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter and Georgia O'Keeffe; and introduced avant-garde Europeans such as Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Auguste Rodin and Pablo Picasso.... This revealing look at "The Father of Modern Photography" features a rare interview with Georgia O'Keeffe, Stieglitz's wife and muse, as well as archival footage of other artistic giants he inspired, including Edward Steichen and John Marin. Additionally, the film presents countless images from the Stieglitz archives, ranging from early European peasant life to later views of New York's urban landscape."

"Surveys the life and achievements of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) who played a major role in introducing America to modern art while championing the elevation of photography as an art form. Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O'Keeffe were just a few of the first wave of American artists whom Stieglitz mentored through his three influential galleries in New York City. It was there also that he introduced America to European masters Matisse, Cezanne, Rodin and Picasso. At the same time he was exhibiting the best artists of the period, Stieglitz' own impressive body of photographic work firmly established him as one of the leading artists of the 20th century." VHS/DVD. Description source: Amon Carter Museum Teacher Resource Center

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rev. 9/19/06

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