Marsden Hartley's "Amerika": Between Native American and German Folk Art

by Gail Levin



Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), a painter, poet, and essayist, distinguished himself as one of America's pioneer modernists. Born in Lewiston, Maine, Hartley led a peripatetic life. When he was eight years old, his mother's death precipitated an unsettled period that ended only eight years later after his father remarried and brought him to Cleveland, Ohio. There Hartley began to study art. His talent attracted the attention of an art school trustee who sponsored him for five years of study in New York City. He spent his first year (1899) at the Chase School and then studied for four years at the National Academy of Design.

After his scholarship ran out, Hartley worked for two years as an extra with a touring theater company. He then began to paint landscapes in Maine, eventually transforming his style from Impressionism to Neo-Impressionism. Maurice and Charles Prendergast, who met Hartley in Boston in 1909, were responsible for introducing him to William Glackens in New York. In April 1909, Hartley met Alfred Stieglitz who gave him a one-man show at his gallery 291 a month later. After a second one-man show at 291 in February 1912, Hartley made his first trip to Europe that spring. In Paris, he became friends with the American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein. In January 1913, Hartley went to Germany for the first time, visiting Berlin and Munich, where he met Vassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. He moved to Berlin in May 1913, and except for a five-month trip to America, He lived there through December 1915.

Returning to America, a restless Hartley alternated between New York City and such places as Provincetown and Gloucester, Massachusetts; Hamilton, Bermuda; Ogunquit, Maine; Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico; and La Cañada, California. In the summer of 1921, however, Hartley returned to Europe, where he spent much of the next decade working in France and Germany. In 1932, he went to Mexico for a year on a Guggenheim Grant. At the end of the Year he returned to Germany where he painted the Bavarian Alps. He finally settled in his native state in his last years, reaching new heights of powerful expression.

Hartley's work is rich and varied, including landscapes, seascapes, still-lifes, figure paintings, and portraits. Hartley's experiments with various styles were informed by his investigations into mystical texts. During World War I, he developed an emblematic abstraction that broke new ground, attracting attention among some of the most significant European vanguard artists of his day. By the end of the 1910s, however, Hartley had abandoned abstraction and returned to representation. In the expressionist paintings of his last decade, Hartley created remarkable emotional images, many of which are among his best works.

Two little-known paintings by Marsden Hartley, now referred to as Schiff (Ship) and Leuchtturm (Lighthouse), add to our understanding of the American artist's engagement with German culture.[l] They show Hartley resuming and enriching the innovative "Amerika" series in which he mediates between Germany and America. Work on the series was interrupted in October 1914 by the death of Hartley's friend, Karl von Freyburg, a German officer who was killed in action. To memorialize his friend, Hartley turned to military symbols and insignia. He reverted to the "Amerika" themes in Schiff and Leuchtturm, which are signed and inscribed in paint on the verso, "MARSDEN HARTLEY BERLIN APRIL 1915."

The "Amerika" series reveals the American struggling to make his mark in Europe. Hartley was infatuated with Germany and felt quite at home in Berlin, but he cannot have forgotten that he remained a foreigner. He found a link between his native and adoptive cultures in the formal similarities between the art of Native Americans and that of the German folk. Drawing from these two traditions, Hartley created a new art which would define for him a dual cultural identity.

Hartley's relations with Germany are more complex than has generally been realized. Attracted by his friendship with von Freyburg and Arnold Rönnebeck, whom he met in Paris in 1912, he settled in Berlin in 1913 and stayed until the end of 1915, although war broke out. His personal sympathies made him responsive to the fervor of German nationalism. In Germany in 1914, "Everyone paid lip service to the cult of national unity.... "[2] The popular German Youth Movement institutionalized fantasies of cultural renewal. Youths went hiking and sang German folk songs, while passionately mouthing Nietzsche's Zarathustra and Stefan George's poetry, congratulating "themselves on having achieved a true national community...."[3] Resonating to these nationalistic pulses, Hartley repeatedly expressed praise for German life, already in 1913 proclaiming that he found Germany "more constructive" than France.[4] Even during the war in 1915, when he chose to remain in Berlin, he insisted "how nice the Germans are...."[5] His dealer Alfred Stieglitz, who declared that he shared Hartley's positive view of Germany, told Rockwell Kent in September 1914: "as a people Germany undoubtedly stands at the head of civilization. "[6]

Hartley likewise came under the spell of Nietzsche. In his essay, "Concerning Fairy Tales and Me," the artist later recalled: "I turned to the dramatic unrealities of Zarathustra, which, of course, was in no way to be believed because it did not exist. "[7] He would have learned of George, who was being proclaimed as the savior of German poetry, from the moment in 1912 in Paris when he first saw Der Blaue Reiter, the almanac edited by Vassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc that includes Arnold Schoenberg's discussion of the poet and reproduces George's poem, "Ihr tratet zu dem herde....," set to music by Anton von Webern.[8] Hartley admired the almanac and told Stieglitz that it was both "a fine thing" and "necessary."[9]

It was also Der Blaue Reiter that introduced Hartley to German folk art. Among the reproductions of folk art in the almanac were Bavarian paintings on glass, Hinterglasmalerei, which were avidly collected by artists of the Blaue Reiter group. The inclusion of folk art in Der Blaue Reiter resulted from Kandinsky's fascination with ethnography, which he had first pursued as a youth in Russia. When Hartley, together with his friend, the German sculptor Rönnebeck, first visited Kandinsky in his city home in the Schwabing section of Munich in January 1913, they were particularly impressed by his collections of both Bavarian glass pictures and Russian folk art.[10]

Kandinsky's interest in German folk traditions intensified after he began to spend time in Murnau, in Upper Bavaria, with Gabriele Münter, the German painter who was his companion. Celebrating the local peasants' rural life-style, Kandinsky painted the stair case and wooden furniture of their own house with decorative motifs in the folk tradition. Münter's paintings amply document that the house was filled with folk art, including glass paintings, wood sculptures, fabrics, and ceramics.[11] That Kandinsky's interest in German folk art did not end with glass painting is evident in the illustrations he chose for his essay, "On the Question of Form," in Der Blaue Reiter. He included five votive paintings on wooden panels representing divine intervention by the Murnau Madonna, which he had found in the local Catholic Parish of St. Nikolaus.

It was also in Murnau that Jawlensky introduced Münter to a local glass painter who had trained and worked in the tradition derived from the first production of glass paintings in the village in the middle of the eighteenth century.[12] This craftsman taught Münter the technique which she then passed on to Kandinsky. The folk technique of applying paint to the back of a pane of glass was practiced by other artists in the Blaue Reiter circle including Marc, August Macke, and Paule Klee.

Writing to Stieglitz from Germany in October 1913, Hartley called these Bavarian glass paintings "wonderful expressions of religious symbolism" and informed him that he would bring six examples with him when he returned to New York.[13] Hartley told Stieglitz that Kandinsky owned more than a hundred examples of the genre and that Alexi Jawlensky, another Russian expatriate painter in Munich, also had an important collection, reminding him that examples of these "Bavarian glass balder" were reproduced in the almanac, Der Blaue Reiter.[14] Although Hartley was to experiment with painting on glass only after he returned to the United States, the idea had come to him when he first saw the German folk paintings. He wrote to Kandinsky and Münter from Berlin in May 1913, recalling his recent visit to their home: "I think often of your kindness and good will -- and often of the beautiful pictures I saw there in your place. How fine to have such things. My own glassbilder give me great joy. "[15]

In addition to the glass paintings he saw in his friends' collection, Hartley could have seen a rich display of German folk art in Berlin's museum of German ethnology. The Museum für Deutsche Völkskunde was founded in 1889 and incorporated into the Berlin State Museum Group in 1904, just nine years before his arrival.[16] The founding of this museum reflected the upsurge of German nationalist sentiment. Hartley might also have seen German folk objects collected by German friends in Berlin.

Besides German folk art, Der Blaue Reiter stirred Hartley's interest in Native American art. In an essay on masks, Macke cited "the war paint of Indians" and "the cape of a chieftain from Alaska," the latter reproduced in the almanac.[17] Hartley deepened his acquaintance with Native American art in Berlin's ethnographical Museum fur Völkerkunde, where nearly 30,000 examples were on view.

Both the German folk and the Native American stimuli from Der Blaue Reiter come together in the "Amerika" series. The "Amerika" paintings include flat, symmetrical, frontal arrangements and forms (such as mandorlas and wavy lines between two straight lines to suggest water) like those in Hartley's beloved Bavarian glass paintings.[18] At the same time, Native American designs also inform the "Amerika" series.[19] Since both these native traditions recur in the paintings from April 1915, Schiff and Leuchtturm, we can infer that the two resume the series. A close look at the two paintings shows how Hartley capitalized on forms found in both native traditions.

In Schiff, large disembodied cut-out wings extend across the top, recalling the eagle that looms over the scene in Hartley's Indian Fantasy of 1914. Such imagery appears in the art of the Northwest coast Indians and elsewhere among Native American peoples. However, the cut-out wings in Schiff also suggest the Prussian eagle, so frequently depicted in German folk art of the time.[20] The eagle, the symbol of Prussia, had been adopted by the Hohenzollerns who became the Kaisers.[21] Folk motifs of eagles were adapted from the Kaiserstandarte, the official sign of the emperor. At the center of Schiff, the canoe undoubtedly reflects the Chippewa models he saw in the Museum für Völkerkunde, much like the canoes he painted in Indian Fantasy.

The plant forms at the bottom of Schiff suggest the stylized flowers and plants that frequently decorate hand-painted German folk furniture produced as late as the middle of the nineteenth century. The long plantlike forms with curling ends that rise in front of the water in Hartley's composition compare to those that decorate a typical nineteenth-century painted Schrank or cupboard. Hartley's painted frames, such as that on Schiff, echo those that Kandinsky made for his own glass paintings.

In Leuchtturm (lighthouse), the stick-like motif in the center of the mandorla shape represents maize in the art of the Hopi and is often seen on Kachina dolls. Hartley had used the same motif superimposed on a mandorla within the teepee in Indian Fantasy. The so-called image of a lighthouse, however, suggests neither Native Americans nor Berlin, which is not on the sea coast.[22] The forms in the painting are similar to those on a four-poster bed or Himmelbett painted with folk motifs in 1834. The footboard of this bed is decorated with fantasty plants which recall shapes in Hartley's painting. The winding white vertical line in the center of Hartley's composition resembles that of the winding white vine painted on the bed. Circles divided into wedges appear in both this folk decoration (as flowers) and on Hopi Kachina dolls. Similar divided circles recur in the "Amerika" series and some of Hartley's other canvases of this period. Two poles capped by partial circles divided into wedges appear in Leuchtturm. The overall composition with its boldly colored segmented forms and shapes recalls both German folk decorations and Native American designs.

In April 1915, Hartley was so elated when he sold four paintings to a young German publisher that he began his letter to Stieglitz in German. He described the purchaser as "well so called upper circles," and he claimed that the sale gave him "an immediate entree into German circles."[23] It is now unclear whether the four paintings sold included Leuchtturm and Schiff, but these two works did find their way into the collection of a member of the very cultural milieu that Hartley admired, Dr. Hans-Hasso Baron von Veltheim (1885-1956), who became wealthy from art and antiquities galleries in Berlin and Munich.[24] Von Veltheim surrounded himself with an elite coterie at Schloss Ostrau, his country estate near Halle. His circle numbered many prominent representatives of German politics and culture, including such luminaries as the occultist Rudolf Steiner and poets like George and Rainer Maria Rilke, who have been described as "like Nietzsche...lonely and homeless men without ties to family, profession, or residence. "[25] The same could be said of Hartley.

It is possible that von Veltheim, who was a German officer in the First World War and was awarded the Iron Cross, might have met Hartley through his friend von Freyburg, the German officer who first motivated Hartley to go to Germany and who became the subject of Hartley's memorial pictures.[26] Like von VeJtheim, Hartley was interested in mysticism and esoteric religion, particularly in the fourteenth-century mystic, Meister Eckhart, who founded the Rhineland school of mysticism, and one of his younger contemporaries, Heinrich Suso.[27] Although aware of the connection of such mystics to German nationalism, Hartley believed that he could partake of the same cultural waters and achieve more universal ends. "The German is most essentially a symbolist and there is evidence that mysticism has its home here," he told Stieglitz, insisting, "I am mystic too but what I want to express is not national but universal.... "[28]

Hartley, mindful of German nationalism and cognizant of his expatriate status, chose the theme of the Native American for his "Amerika" series. Hartley viewed the Indians as a tranquil people who symbolized peace. In his frustration over the war, he told Stieglitz that he wished he were an Indian and that he wanted to emulate them by painting his face with their symbols and going West, facing the sun forever.[29] Hartley also knew that the Indian was an American theme acceptable in Germany, one that had appeared in Der Blaue Reiter almanac as well as in the work of vanguard German painters such as Macke or Marc. In view of the prominence of the Native American collection in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Hartley may have also understood how much significance the Indian had for German culture -- from the writings of Goethe to the nineteenth-century popular novels of Karl May.

Hartley's boast that he had penetrated the "upper circles" proved premature. By December 1915, financial difficulties forced him to return to America. He brought with him the experience of synthesizing two cultures. After a year of producing modernist pictures with simplified geometric forms, Hartley abandoned abstraction and went to live in the art colony in Ogunquit, Maine, founded by Hamilton Easter Field, who collected American folk art.[30] It was there that he began to paint flowers and other still life objects on glass in 1917. Moving on to New Mexico in 1918, Hartley produced a series of paintings focusing on Santos, the traditional religious folk art of the Spanish settlers in the Southwest. Mindful of the American critics' call for both a national style and subject matter, Hartley combined the lessons of Der Blaue Reiter with his understanding of German nationalism. He appropriated American folk traditions and made them serve his own ends.


1 The two paintings have been virtually ignored in America since they are in the collection of Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg, Halle, in Eastern Germany. With the recent reunification of Germany, this museum's strong collection of early twentieth-century modern art is now more accessible, and examples are now beginning to be exhibited in the West. The Guggenheim Museum's current exhibition, "The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932," for example, includes work by EI Lissitzky loaned by the museum in Halle.

2 Robert Wohl, The Generation of 1914 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 46.

3 Ibid., p. 47.

4 Marsden Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz, postcard of February 1,1913, The Alfred Stieglitz Archives, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (hereafter cited as Yale).

5 Marsden Hartley to Mabel Dodge, letter of October 1914, Yale.

6 Alfred Stieglitz to Rockwell Kent, letter of September 14,1914, Archives of American Art.

7 Marsden Hartley, "Concerning Fairy Tales and Me," in Marsden Hartley, Adventure in the Arts (New York: Boni and Liveright, Inc., 1921,) p. 7.

8 Klaus Lankheit, ed. The Blaue Reiter Almanac Edited by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc Documentary Edition, (New York: The Viking Press, 1974), p. 95 and pp. 236-237.

9 Marsden Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz, series of three undated postcards from early September 1912, Yale.

10 Arnold Ronnebeck, unpublished diary, Yale.

11 Annegret Hoberg and Helmut Friedel, Gabriele Münter 1877-1962 Retrospektive (Munich: Prestel-Verlag 1992). See especially Plates 69, 70, 71, 105, 106, 113, and 126, dating from 1910-1912. The house with the staircase Kandinsky decorated was actually owned by Münter.

12 Helena Waddy Lepovitz. Images of Faith: Expresionism, Catholic Folk Art and the Industrial Revolution (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), p. 5.

13 Marsden Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz, letter of October 31, 1913, Yale.

14 In fact, there are eleven examples in Der Blaue Reiter.

15 Marsden Hartley to Wassily Kandinsky, postcard postmarked May 19, 1913, Gabriele Münter-und-Johannes Eichner-Siftung, Munich.

16 Although this collection suffered serious losses during the Second World War, the works visible in the collection today are representative, as folk art objects are by definition designed to conform to certain traditions.

17 August Macke, "Masks," in The Blaue Reiter Almanac documentary edition, pp. 83-89.

18 See Sandra Gail Levin, "Wassily Kandinsky and the American Avant-garde, 1912-1950," Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers University, 1976, pp. 122-124.

19 For a discussion of the American material, see Gail Levin, "American Art," in William Rubin, ed., "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984), pp. 453-473.

20 For example, the eagle wings of a "Schiessvogel" of circa 1900 in Erika Just, Museum für Völkkunst Dresden (Dresden: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, 1984), pI. 66, inventory no. A324.

21 John Mander, Berlin: The Eagle and the Bear (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1959), p. 3.

22 There was, however, a naval airship lighthouse on a rocky coast featured in a celebrated commemorative sketch made by the Kaiser after the tragic loss of the Zepplin in October 1913. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that Leuchtterm was Hartley's own title for the work.

23 Marsden Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz, letter of April 6, 1915. The young publisher was Herr Wolfgang von Wachsmuth, who, according to Hartley, bought the paintings with his wife (who sang lieder) to decorate a room in their house in Weimar.

24 See Rolf Italiaander, Hans-Hasso Von Veltheim-Ostrau Privatgelehrter und Weltburger (Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1987).

25 Hans Kohn, The Mind of Germany The Education of a Nation (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960), p. 223.

26 See Gail Levin, "Hidden Symbolism in Marsden Hartley's Military Pictures." Arts Magazine, October 1979, pp. 154-158.

27 See Marsden Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz, undated letter of February 1913, quoted in Gail Levin, "Marsden Hartley and Mysticism," Arts Magazine, November 1985, vol. 60, p. 17.

28 Marsden Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz, letter of September 28, 1913, Yale.

29 Marsden Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz, letter of November 12, 1914 (misdated 1913), Yale.

30 See Doreen Bolger, "Hamilton Easter Field and His Contribution to American Modernism," The American Art Journal, XX, no. 2, 1988, pp. 78-107.

This research was supported by a grant from the City University of New York PSC-CUNY Research Award Program.

© 1993 Gail Levin


About the author

Gail Levin (PhD, Rutgers University) is Professor of Art History, American Studies, and Women Studies at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. She is an art historian specializing in art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with diverse research interests that include the work of Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Judy Chicago, women artists, Jewish artists, Chinese emigre artists, and contemporary art of the United States, Europe, and Japan, as well as American Studies and the cinema.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above article was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on December 18, 2006 with the March 22, 2006 permission of Gail Levin.

If you have questions or comments regarding the article please contact the author directly through this web address:

This article was also previously published in American Art Review, Volume V, Number 2, Winter 1993.

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