Joslyn Art Museum

Omaha, NE



Marsden Hartley: American Modern

July 8 - September 4, 2000


A core member of the group that revolved around photographer-editor-art dealer Alfred Stieglitz in New York City in the early decades of the 1900s, Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) was at the center of the artistic and cultural maelstrom known today as early American Modernism. Like a true modernist, Hartley ran through the full gamut of options then open to avant-garde painters, from groundbreaking abstract works to lyrical landscapes. The retrospective exhibition "Marsden Hartley: American Modern," on view at Joslyn Art Museum from July 8 through September 24, 2000, presents superb examples of Hartley's paintings and works on paper from every phrase of his artistic development and attempts to explain Hartley's shifting artistic practice and beliefs in the context of changing cultural and political realities.

Included in the exhibition are Hartley's early, post-impressionist Maine mountain scenes, pre-World War I abstractions completed in Paris and Berlin, New Mexican landscapes, colorful still lifes from the 1920s and 1930s, pastels of the Bavarian mountains, stark portraits, and late Maine landscapes. In addition to 37 paintings and 16 works on paper by the artist, the exhibition features one portrait photograph of Hartley by Alfred Stieglitz, two portrait sculptural busts of Hartley by Arnold Rönnebeck and Jacques Lipchitz, and three photo murals.

A painter, poet, critic, and artistic rebel, Hartley witnessed momentous changes during the course of his lifetime. From his birth in 1877 to his death in 1943, two world wars were fought, and American society shifted from a rural to an urban focus as millions of people left farms and small towns for factory jobs and other attractions of the city. Americans benefited from a gradual lessening of restrictive Victorian social conventions and watched as inventors and industry-made exciting technological breakthroughs. Such changes profoundly affected Hartley, and the many shifts 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 to it. Hartley took part in the vibrant and vital changes afoot in the world. He joined a generation of radicals who shook off the weight of convention and tradition, and although academically trained, he valued innovation over tradition and worked to develop an original artistic voice. As a vanguard artist he also stood beyond social and sexual norms as a gay man. Living long before the gay-rights movement of our day, he kept that side of himself hidden, expressing his homosexuality in his art rarely and only through highly guarded symbolism. This inability to express his authentic inner self was extremely difficult for Hartley, especially when his role as a modernist called upon him to do so. Critics argue that the insecurity of a closeted life helped fuel Hartley's need to recreate himself and his art over the course of his career. (left: Still Life, 1912, oil on canvas)

Marsden Hartley was born Edmund Hartley on January 4, 1877 in Lewiston, Maine. His mother died when he was eight, leaving him under the care of an older sister. In 1893, at the age of 16, Hartley joined his father and stepmother of four years, Martha (Marsden) Hartley, in Cleveland, Ohio, where he began formal art training three years later (in 1906, at the age of 29, Hartley adopted his stepmother's maiden surname, Marsden, as his first name). His talent won him a five-year scholarship for study at New York's National Academy of Design, which he began in 1899 at the age of 22. Nearly 10 years later, Hartley's post-impressionist Maine mountain scenes garnered the attention of Alfred Stieglitz, who ran 291, the most influential gallery for vanguard art in the United States in the early 1900s. Hartley's first solo exhibition at 291 in 1909, led to his long-standing affiliation with the Stieglitz circle of artists, writers, and cultural critics. Painters Arthur G. Dove, John Marin, and Georgia O'Keeffe, and photographer Paul Strand were among his colleagues, and through the exhibitions Stieglitz organized, Hartley caught his first glimpse of modern European art - works by Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, and August Rodin. Influenced by these European masters, Hartley's early work reflects their styles. For example, the explosion of color apparent in Hartley's paintings from 1909-1911 was likely inspired by Matisse's use of intense colors.

During this initial phase of his career, Hartley was also absorbed in the writings of American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman - men who placed supreme importance upon the individual's ability to experience direct and powerful emotional experiences in nature. Hartley expressed this fundamental 19th-century world-view in the most radical visual expression of his day. Attempting to find a style that could convey the moods he felt in the Maine mountains, Hartley turned to the vigorous brushwork of impressionism to show his personal experience with the landscape. Unwavering reliance on the self and a keen subjective sensitivity were cornerstones of transcendentalism as well as Hartley's artistic enterprise during this early stage of his career. Like other modern artists, Hartley challenged himself to invent a wholly original style that voiced his subjective feelings and insights and communicated directly to viewers' hearts and souls, rather than to their minds. While some 20th-century artists found a style they adhered to faithfully, others, such as Hartley and Pablo Picasso, shifted radically and often to forge a series of inventive ways to assert themselves in the face of great changes in the larger world of politics and culture.

While New York and Stieglitz acted as a base of support and friendship for Hartley, he constantly shifted from place to place, living abroad several times and in varying locales across the country during the course of his life. He lived abroad in Paris in 1912, painting a series of still-lifes and developing a close friendship with the author Gertrude Stein. Together, they explored the ideas of American philosopher William James whose insistence on the primacy of the individual intensely interested the author and the artist. Inspired by James' ideas and his discussions with Stein, Hartley relocated to Berlin in 1913 and quickly made his way into the most progressive art circles while embracing abstraction. At the time, Berlin was a surging metropolis with a military presence that Hartley loved. His work from this time is characterized by brilliant colors, numbers, military insignia, cavalry parades, and mystic motifs and critics argue that it's the finest of his career.

With World War I, however, came the need for Hartley to redefine his art as a longing for security, order, and simple virtues took hold. Soon after the outbreak of the war, Hartley lost a dear friend, and possibly lover, Karl von Freyburg, who died in battle. He began a series of paintings that paid tribute to Freyburg and other war dead while also expressing, in a very guarded way, Hartley's life in Berlin's vibrant homosexual culture. Leaving Germany in 1915 only when his cash cables from New York could no longer reach him, Hartley exhibited his recent series at Stieglitz's gallery in New York, but they were weakly received and Hartley entered a deep depression.

Reacting to the new political and cultural realities created by the war, Hartley, along with other modernists, retreated from "the new" as embodied in extreme artistic experiments. Between 1917 and 1918, he found a new direction in regionalism, which sought to express wholly American characteristics rising from plainspoken common people and the rural commonplace. From a 1918 retreat to Taos, New Mexico through the next two decades in Maine, Hartley abandoned intuition as a source for art-making and pursued this more rational analysis of his subjects, producing a number of landscapes and still lifes. By the late 1930s, however, Hartley had come full circle in his approach to his work Late in his career, he immersed himself in the landscape and the people of Maine, such as simple fisherfolk, and realized that a representation of objective fact and an emotional response to his subject matter could co-exist in his art.

Joslyn Art Museum is the final venue on this exhibition's 10-museum tour that began in September 1997. "Marsden Hartley: American Modern" is organized by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. A catalogue written by exhibition curator Patricia McDonnell accompanies the exhibition. This exhibition is made possible by the generous bequest of Hudson and Ione Walker, whose gift comprises the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum's collection of works by Marsden Hartley. Additional support has been provided by the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation. The catalogue and exhibition tour have been made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional underwriting from the B. J. O. Nordfeldt Fund for American Art, Olympic Graphics, and Colorhouse, Inc.

Readers may also enjoy:

Read more about the Joslyn Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/18/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.