- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Marsden Hartley called himself “the painter from Maine.” Yet he spent most of his life traveling — geographically and artistically — to Paris, Berlin, New York, the American Southwest and Mexico before returning, late in life, to his native soil.

Perhaps the peripatetic Hartley should have stayed put more. He didn’t gain critical recognition and monetary rewards until just before his death in 1943, and part of the reason success eluded him for so long might be that he proved such an elusive figure.

The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., has organized a powerful overview of Hartley’s tough, sometimes brutal, work that opens today at Washington’s Phillips Collection. The exhibit reveals a Hartley who was as indomitable as the great stands of Maine firs he painted and as tenacious as the relentless pounding of its seas.

Though a loner and eccentric, he brought a Yankee forthrightness and independence to his wanderings through Europe, Mexico and the United States. He sampled German Expressionism in Germany and cubism and fauvism in France, but the Americans Albert Pinkham Ryder and Winslow Homer and Mexican Jose Clemente Orozco influenced him the most.

Art historians identify three major periods in Hartley’s career: his semiabstract period in pre-World War I Berlin; a Mexican period (1932-33) when Hartley began to paint in the raw, deliberately primitive manner that defined his late signature style; and a final period in his native Maine, where he found the brave subjects he had searched for his entire life in Maine: the fight to the death of Maine’s fishermen with the sea surrounded by primeval forests and towering rocks. Death and resurrection would be a recurring theme in his work.

Hartley never had it easy. He was born in 1877 in the ugly mill town of Lewiston, Maine, the youngest of eight children of English immigrants. Thomas Hartley, his father, worked in the cotton mills. His mother, Eliza Jane Hartley, died when he was 8, and his father quickly married Martha Marsden. Thomas Hartley moved most of the family to Cleveland, Ohio, but Marsden Hartley moved in with an older, married sister in Auburn, Maine. He didn’t rejoin the Cleveland part of the family until 1893.

He has been described as looking “woebegone,” or like “an extraordinarily intelligent hound dog.” Homosexual when homosexuality was taboo in the United States, gauche, ugly, slow to mature as a person and artist, he became a global wanderer.

Hartley’s was a classic “beauty and the beast” story as he extracted an original and rare beauty from his pain. He first studied art at age 18, entered the Cleveland School of Art on scholarship at 20, went to New York on a private stipend at 21 and returned often to Maine to paint and teach.

He imbued the exhibit’s “Storm Clouds, Maine” (1906-1907) with a dynamism of handling and composition that gave it a contemporary freshness. The mysticism that would recur throughout his oeuvre is evident here for the first time. The darkly brooding “Deserted Farm” of 1909 was heavily influenced by Albert Ryder.

The arts promoter and gallery dealer Alfred Stieglitz, who would emerge as the den leader of the American avant-garde in the arts, sent Hartley to Europe when the artist’s first solo show at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery failed to sell and he became dangerously depressed.

Life immediately improved. In Paris, he met Gertrude Stein, who hung four of his paintings in her apartment. In Germany, Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc took him under their wings. Hartley already was reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Essays” in Cleveland, and Kandinsky’s “On the Spiritual in Art” also had impressed him.

He achieved his first success in Berlin during the years before and after World War I. Freed artistically and sexually in the anything-goes atmosphere of the German capital, he painted modernist works unrivaled at the time.

Berlin was electric with Kaiser Wilhelm II’s ostentatious pageantry and awash in revenue from the coal and iron industries, which sparked a mass influx of workers that swelled the population in 1905 to 2 million. Artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Beckmann distilled the streets’ pulsing rhythms in iconic images of avant-garde painting.

Hartley first portrayed Berlin through Cezanne-esque and German Expressionist eyes, then began what he called the “War Motif” series. Formally, the works combined jivey cubist compositions with a roughly textured expressionism. Critics generally consider them the best American works of applied cubism of their time.

The paintings also glorified German power, as the 11 examples in the exhibit show. The artist had friends in the German military, where Berlin’s large homosexual subculture was concentrated. Hartley became friendly — and maybe romantically involved — with the young Lt. Karl von Freyburg, whom he idolized. Hartley was inconsolable when von Freyburg was killed early in the war.

The paintings are replete with symbolic images of von Freyburg, usually represented as a white-uniformed rider atop a prancing horse. Hartley may have painted “Portrait of a German Officer” (1914) — the vertical piling of illustrative elements implies a human torso — as the first in the extraordinary series.

Obviously, the painting is an unconventional, abstract portrait of the lieutenant. Military insignia, a rider’s spur, the initials “Kv.F” and the number 24 — von Freyburg’s age at death — all refer to the young man. Hartley made it even more impressive through its enormous scale.

The painter knew he had accomplished something important with the German paintings but couldn’t find buyers. Hartley was politically naive, and his timing couldn’t have been worse.

When the artist could no longer receive money wired from Stieglitz to wartime Berlin, he returned to New York with high hopes of marketing the “War Motif” works. The United States had turned against Germany, however, and he managed to sell just a few.

He next traveled to Provincetown, Mass., New Mexico and, in 1932, to Mexico. There he experienced the Mexican mural movement in the work of Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera. Rekindling his interest in mysticism, Mexico “returned [me] to the ‘gaudy flame’ of earlier pictures,” he would say.

Like many others, Hartley suffered financial hardships during the Great Depression. He was an artist of his time and hoped to allay the anxiety of the Depression with the powerful landscapes and martyred figures of his late years. Returning to New England in 1937, the painter finally found in Nova Scotia and Maine the heroic subjects he had been seeking on his wide travels.

Men drowned at sea became a subject that gripped him. He had traveled to Nova Scotia in 1935 and lived with the Francis Mason family. A year later, he painted them posthumously along with other fisher folk in his “archaic portraits.” The forceful, primitive style — first developed in Mexico — suited these gentle, tragic people well. In “Fisherman’s Last Supper,” he pictured the Masons as Christ and some of his disciples. Two of the males, painted with asterisk like stars over their heads, had drowned. “Christ Held by Half-Naked Men” is another powerful death image.

While other artists painted saccharine images of Depression life — like Grant Wood’s “Dinner for the Threshers” and, later, Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want” — Hartley was upfront and brutal. As Barbara Rose wrote in “American Art Since 1900, A Critical History,” “Hartley left behind any stylistic niceties for the raw directness of the visionary experience.”

Collectors from Bruce Springsteen to prominent art collector Roy Neuberger — who bought “Last Supper” in 1942 — have responded to these bold visions. So, also, will visitors to the Phillips Collection exhibit.

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