Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on November 30, 2007 with permission of the author and the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, University of Minnesota. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Weisman Museum of Art at this postal address, phone number or Web address:

Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art
University of Minnesota
333 East River Road
Minneapolis, MN 55455


Marsden Hartley: American Modern

by Patricia McDonnell


"I am convinced," wrote the American painter Marsden Hartley in 1912, "that the intuition is the only vehicle for art expression and it is on this basis that I am proceeding."[1] A short seven years later, the following words came from his pen: "Real art comes from the brain, as we know, not from the soul."[2] Clearly, these statements are unequivocally opposed. To understand Hartley and his art, one needs to confront the glaring discrepancy and momentous transition reflected in his words. Attempts to appreciate an artist's ideas fully must also include an eye and ear to the events of his or her time, for ideas and art of course do not incubate in a vacuum.

Hartley's life as an artist began under the sway of the American writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and William James. Early in his career two great provocateurs, the author Gertrude Stein and the photographer-editor-art dealer Allfred Stieglitz, befriended him. In addition, he admired the French philosopher Henri Bergson and read spiritualist texts. These sources and more fed Hartley's commitment to the life of the soul over the life of the mind.

The conditions that fostered this early aesthetic position and passion for an intuitive approach dissolved, for Hartley and other artists, as a consequence of World War I. Having lived and worked in Paris and Berlin since 1912, Hartley returned in December 1915 to a homeland that had already reacted strongly to the brutalities of the war and would soon be drawn into it.

Beginning in 1917 and 1918, he came to grips with the schism between his former inclinations and the very changed tenor of the times. He adopted a milder, restrained approach and asked for reliance upon "intellect," as he called it. Hartley refined these ideas and new direction in articles and essays he wrote from 1918 to 1921. He embraced rationalism with the vengeance of the newly converted.

Indeed, Hartley had abundant company, for there was scarcely an artist who did not undergo serious change in reaction to the new political and cultural realities ushered in by the war. Max Beckmann, Thomas Hart Benton, Georges Braque, Wassily Kandinsky, Alfred H. Maurer, and Pablo Picasso were among a legion of those who dramatically shifted their artistic gears in the late 1910s and 1920s.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, as Hartley neared the end of his life, he reconciled himself to his initial beliefs about the important contribution of an artist's subjective side to his or her art-making. His late paintings from Maine, like his early works, exude an emotional intensity. All these canvases -- his moody landscapes, his sturdy and archaicized fishermen, and his elegiac series of portraits -- convey this artist's expressive and subjective core. Their potent expressionism is a large factor in the admiration these important works of art have garnered over the years.

Interwoven within the various artistic, philosophical, and cultural forces that shaped him were subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, notions of sexuality. For Hartley, a homosexual, this was particularly problematic. As a gay man in an era when public admission of that side of oneself meant social and artistic ruin -- to say nothing of criminal prosecution -- he routinely masqueraded as something he was not. The procedures of concealment remained overwhelming concerns throughout his life. Hartley constantly sought a subject matter that, on the one hand, would represent his authentic inner self -- a core goal for modernism and modern artists. On the other hand, his art could reveal only that part of him available for public view and in step with conventional social mores.

In charting Marsden Hartley's path from intuition to intellect and back again, the place to start is where the artist himself began and ended: the State of Maine. Born to English immigrants in the town of Lewiston in 1877, Hartley had a troubled childhood. His mother died when he was eight. Four years later, his father married Martha Marsden and moved with his new bride to Ohio, leaving the boy with an older sister in Auburn, Maine. He joined the family in Cleveland in 1893, beginning art lessons and then art school there. These early dislocations set the stage for the rootless, peripatetic pattern of the artist's life. He even changed his first name -- the supreme shift of identity, perhaps -- from Edmund to Marsden in 1906, when he was twenty-nine.

He first attracted attention as an artist in 1909, when Alfred Stieglitz responded favorably to his early renderings of the Maine mountains. Stieglitz arranged Hartley's first one-person exhibition featuring these paintings that May in his rambunctious New York gallery -- named 291 after its location at 291 Fifth Avenue -- which, from 1905 to 1917, promoted the then-radical work of European and American modernists. This show and Hartley's subsequent long-standing affiliation with Stieglitz and his avant-garde circle of leading American artists, writers, and cultural critics drew Hartley into the art-world limelight.

Maine Snowstorm and Songs of Winter are many fine examples from this period in Hartley's career. Both date from 1908 and represent the artist's daring beginnings. As he expressed it, his project in these works was to render "the God-spirit in the mountains."[3] Hartley worked to master the pictorial vocabulary that had originated in France in the 1860s and become popular in America at the turn of the century. Unlike the French impressionist artists, however, his goal was not simply to manipulate the formal properties of paint on canvas as a joyous end in itself. Instead, he saw gestural impressionist paint-handling as an ideal vehicle for expressing his emotional, even spiritual, experience in the landscape.

Maine Snowstorm demonstrates Hartley at the height of his power in these early years. In this work, innovative technique underscores symbolic content. He believed his early landscapes spoke "of [the] supremacy of mighty things -- things thatare conscious only of the great energy in them over which they have no direction [.]"[4] Stressing the physicality of every inch of the picture surface through the active touch of his brush, he signals his belief in the omnipresent forces present in nature. Effusive, gestural paint-handling, then, is one stylistic option for him when working to pour his subjective self onto his canvases.

The source for this outlook is to be found in American transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leading spokes-man for a group of philosopher-authors in mid-nineteenth-century New England, had been a favorite of Hartley's for years by the time he produced his early Maine mountain canvases. Later he acknowledged that his first reading of Emerson's two-part collection, Essays (1841, 1844), in about 1898 was "to provide the religious element in my experience."[5]

Transcendentalists sought a shift from what they saw as a suffocating reliance on religious doctrine toward a greater freedom for individual religious expression. Rather than privilege the routines of the church, its dogma, and scripture, as Puritanism did, transcendentalists placed a higher value on the individual's own heartfelt spirituality. Further, they saw the individual's greatest opportunity for access to divine spirit in the verdant riches of nature.

Two more tenets of transcendentalism are pertinent to Hartley. The first is transcendentalism's belief in the omnipresent "Over-Soul" or "Aboriginal Power," as Emerson called it, in nature. An animate life force permeated all nature and all life and rendered distinct parts indivisible from the whole for transcendentalists.

The second important point is that movement's secular spiritualism. The initial aim of transcendentalism was to offer the individual greater control of the avenues for religious expression. This goal makes its characteristic emphasis on spirituality understandable. Many transcendentalists, however, built upon this emphasis. They called for a self-directed, inward approach to an awakening of spirit.

Hartley internalized this worldview and, over the course of his career, discovered a whole variety of ways to give it pictorial expression. Part of his enduring contribution to the art of his time is his insistence on the values of American transcendentalism and his translation of them into a vanguard artistic idiom. Marsden Hartley was not alone in this. He found like-minded company in the ranks of the Stieglitz circle, for this cadre of progressive artists were, in the words of the art historian Matthew Baigell, also "resolutely, almost belligerently, Emersonian."[6]

His introduction to the Stieglitz group and increasing comfort within it encouraged Hartley to step up the daring of his already radical painting. Through the exhibitions Stieglitz organized, Hartley caught his first glimpse of modern European art. Works by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Auguste Rodin were part of the fare he absorbed at 291. In turn, he reinvested the visual discoveries he made there into his own repertoire. Landscape No. 36 and Still Life demonstrate Hartley's eagerness to find his way among the moderns and establish himself as an artistic presence to be reckoned with. The brighter hues in his mountain landscapes of 1908 -- before his involvement with Stieglitz -- demonstrate that he was already aware of avant-garde psychology at Harvard. He wrote The Principles of Psychology in 1890, a decade before Sigmund Freud began published circulation of his ideas.

In his insistence on the primacy of the individual, James was very much a man of his times. Like Emerson, James argued for a greater trust in the individual's subjective perceptions than either an overbearing Puritan doctrine or an overwhelming scientific materialism in their time allowed. Inner intuitions, not strident mental concepts or external material facts, needed to be heeded first. Hartley's interest in James' writing, sparked in 1912, helped the painter redirect his thinking and art and later lead him to major accomplishment. Stein's appropriation of these ideas to fuel her literary experiments at the same time was certainly another significant factor in Hartley's burst of confidence and maturing art from 1912 through 1915.

Hartley decided to move to Berlin after visiting the city early in 1913 at the invitation of German friends he had made in Paris. His passion for the place was immediate. He reported that he came alive there and found it "without question the finest tendencies. Hartley's color explosion in 1909 through 1911 show his absorption of Matisse's intense colors and Cézanne's ordered compositions.

His strong stylistic changes during these years, however, did not substantially alter the philosophical aims of his art. His deepening pictorial radicalism aside, Hartley remained committed to a willfully subjective approach. The task Hartley set for himself, one requiring strong personal resolve and independence, was to voice his soul.

In 1912 Hartley achieved a long-harbored desire, heading off for the expatriate experience in Europe. He would remain abroad for three and one half years. His first destination was Paris. In this exciting new setting -- and, subsequently, in Berlin -- Hartley remained steadfastly loyal to his transcendentalist heritage and celebration of intuition. Indeed, as he came to know other European modernists and carefully study their work, he saw the art that he most admired through the lens of his own inclinations.

For Hartley, Cézanne's breakthrough did not center on his formal innovations per se but on his intuitive expressiveness, something Hartley then called "vision." This emphasis was Hartley's own: "Vision" was what he wanted to register in his own work. Given this obvious reverence, it is not surprising that Hartley began a series of still-life paintings in 1912 that pay clear homage to his French predecessor. Still Life replicates many of Cézanne's staple characteristics -- his tilted tabletop, his selection of a few simple objects, his muted palette, and his complex pictorial interplay between two- and three-dimensional forces.

Hartley was able to study works by Cézanne and Picasso firsthand in the home of Gertrude Stein. With her brother, Leo, Gertrude collected these artists' paintings and displayed them in her famous apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus, the gathering place for progressive writers and artists of many nationalities and persuasions. Hartley's contact with Stein came at a fortuitous moment, for she helped him, unwittingly perhaps, to make critical advances in his art. Her challenging intellect stimulated him, and her enthusiasm for his art bolstered his confidence.

Stein had very recently taken a new stride in her writing when she and Hartley met. She had broken her language loose from linear narrative and tight description of events and appearances, launching into a freely abstract and idiosyncratic speech form. An important source propelling this literary advance was Stein's interest in the American philosopher William James. Brother of the novelist Henry James, William James was a pioneer in the field of modern city in Europe."[7] Enamored of "the life color of Berlin," Hartley began to paint it. It was the city's "life spectacle" and his experience of it that he sought to capture. His initial Berlin paintings are montages of brilliant colors, numbers, military insignia, cavalry parades, and mystic motifs -- Hartley's own pictorial reverie to the manly athleticism and dynamism he so enjoyed there.

Gaiety about the spectacle of Wilhelmine Berlin went out of Hartley and his art with the onset of the Great War in August 1914. In October one of his dear friends, Karl von Freyburg -- a German lieutenant -- died in battle on the Western Front. In many important ways, this turn of events signaled the start of Hartley's shift to a new, less enthusiastically subjective order. A shift of some kind would have been inevitable, given that Hartley's imagery was German and that Germany was now the enemy of Western nations.

Hartley remained in Berlin well into the war, leaving only in December 1915 when cables from New York sending him needed cash were no longer reliably getting through. After von Freyburg's death, he initiated a series of paintings, twelve of which are known today. When Hartley returned to New York, Stieglitz quickly arranged an exhibition of the paintings, held in April 1916. In his artist's statement accompanying the show, he responded defensively to rising wartime tensions in his homeland. "The forms are only those which I have observed casually from day to day," he wrote. "There is no hidden symbolism whatsoever in them...."

There was perhaps an additional reason for Hartley's defensive tone about his German paintings -- a wish to deflect attention away from their homosexual content. Those who knew the artist was gay might have also understood that the young German officer memorialized likely had had a special love relationship with the artist.

Despite the anxieties expressed and hinted at in his artist's statement, Hartley had anticipated that his new paintings would be warmly received. He knew that they constituted his best work to date and that they stood on par with the finest examples of avant-garde art produced anywhere. However, critics mainly saw the imagery as containing "all the pomp and circumstance of war."[8] And while none of them maligned the work as pro-German or expressed awareness of its sexual content in print, their praise was tepid at best. This reaction, combined with weak sales, caused Hartley great disappointment. Depression troubled Hartley before and after this show.

A year earlier Hartley had written Stieglitz, "I have achieved a nearness to the primal intention of things never before accomplished by me[.] The germans [sic] have helped me in this -- [.]"[9] Now, however, he was painfully beginning to see that, to survive as an artist, he would need to forsake both the Germans and the painting achievement that resulted from his Berlin experience. He would have to do more than simpIy jettison the German military uniform from his repertoire. A growing conservatism, rising nationalist fervor, and creeping distrust of extreme artistic experiments -- all of which stemmed from the enormous brutality and shock of World War I -- would combine to make Hartley leave abstraction behind as well. He would, in effect, have to redefine himself as an artist.

Among the first canvases he painted after landing on American shores is One Portrait of One Woman, his homage to Gertrude Stein. In it, he starts his dual attempt to find a place for himself at home and a new imagery, one purged of German reference. The painting's mixture of symbolic motifs and bold colors contained within a tightly organized pictorial matrix continues the style of his German paintings.

That summer, he joined the cast of characters who spent what was later known as the Great Provincetown Summer together. The Massachusetts resort town hosted artists and writers -- including Hartley, Charles Demuth, Eugene O'Neill, and John Reed -- who escaped New York and tried to ignore the depressing news of the war.

During the winter of 1917 Hartley and Demuth traveled to Bermuda. In ill health and profoundly depressed by the war and the collapse of his artistic direction with the weak reception of his German paintings, Hartley contemplated his next step. "I am really tired out spiritually by the loss of illusions," he wrote Stieglitz in February.[10]

This bleak outlook would soon dissipate, as a path toward change opened up for him. In June 1918 he lit out for New Mexico, having been invited there by friend and art patron Mabel Dodge, who had moved to Taos. If he was starting to contemplate a return to a more strongly representational form of painting and was seeking firm grounding in the land as a means of breaking out of his artistic dead end, what better place to do so and to "discover America" than in the territory of the mythic American Wild West? And indeed, while there he found a new course of action. "I am the American discovering America," he boasted in a 1918 essay, "America and the Landscape."[11]

During the 1920s and early 1930s, Hartley readily took part in the cultural swing toward conservatism. He wanted his art to be as "American" as possible -- and, for the time being, that also meant being resolutely objective. Hartley's many still lifes of these years show him working hard to be the "scientific spectator of all principles of nature,"[12] as do his host of landscape canvases, including Landscape, Vence. A few spare forms depicted with exacting strokes and based on careful observation, seen in this and many other 1920s works, reveal the rational Hartley.

Hartley began to backpedal and soften his "scientific objectivity" rhetoric in the first half of the 1930s, years when the domination of regionalism reached its peek. He began allowing greater room for personal perception. The tentative steps he took back toward subjectivity during the early and mid-1930s became increasingly assured ones in his late work in Nova Scotia and Maine.

Even in 1933 he was able to assert that a reconciliation with his earlier artistic self was imminent. "My pictures are bound to the mystical more and more," he wrote to Downtown Gallery dealer Edith Halpert, "for that is what I myself am more and more.... I belong naturally to the Emerson-Thoreau tradition and I know that too well. It is my native substance."[13] His overseas wanderings -- which continued up through the early 1930s -- ended in 1935 when he moved up to Nova Scotia and then back to Maine.

Wisdom from maturity and insight from experience eventually led Hartley back to his origins -- geographic, conceptual, and artistic. He began his career "rendering the God-spirit in the mountains" of Maine and returned in the end to this same source of personal and artistic sustenance. He reacquainted himself with his roots in American transcendentalism and Jamesian radical empiricism. For both these philosophical approaches and for Hartley, the subjective was an essential aspect of the whole of life, one that carried the sensitive observer to crucial insight.

Fortuitously, Hartley could reconnect with his ideological roots in American transcendentalism and position himself as a contemporary link in a very American chain. Gradually he came to realize that he could embrace subjectivity again because it was part of a revered and established tradition.

After a host of changes and maneuvers that Hartley undertook to accommodate himself to the forces in his life -- to conceal his homosexuality, to win sales for his paintings, to stay intellectually abreast of the day's cultural trends, to believe himself to be making a valid contribution to the art of his time -- he again assumed a passionate belief in a subjective approach. Had Hartley lived beyond 1943, he would have again found himself in an art world that prized individual experience and abstract experimentation.

Unlike the Lost Generation artists and writers who were his peers, Hartley never became a skeptic and entirely disillusioned. Nonetheless, his world fell apart just as radically as did theirs in the wake of the Great War. While various scholars and critics have probed Hartley's changes of heart, they have only infrequently viewed his shifts and turns in the light of the broader cultural dilemmas of the time. Hartley's conversions were not the mood swings of a petulant temperament, and they cannot be fullIy grasped outside the context of his highly turbulent epoch. He changed his mind and opened and closed his heart in time with the staggering world events that he witnessed over the course of his life. His art ultimately reflects the savvy and dexterity of this American modern and the impact of world events that forged the twentieth century as we know it.

1 Marsden Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz, December 20, 1912, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Hereafter cited as YCAL.

2 Marsden Hartley, "The Business of Poetry," Poetry 15, no. 3 (December 1919): 157.

3 Hartley to Horace Traubel, February 10, 1907. As quoted in William Innes Homer, ed. Heart's Gate: Letters between Marsden Hartley and HoraceTraubel, 1906 - 1915 (Highlands, N.C.: Jargon Society, 1982), 24.

4 Hartley to Anne Traubel, May 31, 1911. As quoted in Homer, Heart's Gate, 76.

5 Marsden Hartley, Somehow a Past: The Autobiography of Marsden Hartley, ed. Susan Ryan (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997), 181. Prior to the publication of this book, the autobiography existed in manuscript form and was only accessible at YCAL.

6 Matthew Baigell, "American Landscape Painting and National Identity: The Stieglitz Circle and Emerson," Art Criticism 4, no. 1 (1987): 38.

7 Hartley to Stieglitz, February 1913, YCAL.

8 Henry McBride, "Current News of Art and the Exhibitions," New York Sun (April 9, 1916), sec. 6, p. 8. As quoted in Camera Work no. 48 (October 1916): 58.

9 Hartley to Stieglitz, March 15,1915, YCAL.

10 Hartley to Stieglitz, February 8, 1917, YCAL.

11 Marsden Hartley, "America as Landscape," El Palacio 5 (December 21,1918): 340.

12 Hartley, "The Scientific Esthetic of the Redman," Art and Archaeology 13 (March 1922): 119.

13 Hartley to Edith Halpert, July 12, 1933. As quoted in Garnett McCoy, ed., "Letters from Germany, 1933 - 1938." Archives of American Art Journal 25, nos. 1 and 2 (1985): 3-28.

© 1997 Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota

About the author:

Patricia McDonnell is director of the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Previously she was curator of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, where she organized the nationally toured 1997 exhibition and authored the catalogue Marsden Hartley: American Modern. She holds a B.A. in German studies from Mills College and a M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from Brown University. She has worked at the Tacoma Art Museum, Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, the Bell Art Gallery of Brown University, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. She has published widely on American and European modern art in such journals as Art Criticism, Art Journal, Arts Magazine, Archives for American Art Journal, Museum News, and others.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 30, 2007, with permission of the author and the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, which was granted to TFAO on September 20, 2007. Dr. McDonnell's article pertains to a special exhibition she organized, Marsden Hartley: American Modern, that was on view at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota June 4 - August 31, 1997. The exhibition was also shown at the Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University and then toured the United States for two years.

The article was published in the August 1997 issue of American Art Review as an adaptation from the eighty-eight page fully-illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen and Laura Muessig, associate registrar at the Weisman Art Museum, for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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and this video:

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

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, Angel 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



(above: Entrance, Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, University of Minnesota. Photo: John Hazeltine. © 2012 John Hazeltine)


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