America is an unenlightened nation. America is predestination, transcendentalism, superstition, and sin. Walt Whitman famously wrote that "the real and permanent grandeur of these States must be their religion." Behind the outgrowths of positivism, democracy, and free enterprise, there runs in America that thick grove of spirituality. Thank God.
Spiritualism blanketed the United States in the nineteenth century with its mixture of revivalist bible-thumping, theosophy, and Revelation. This spiritual cocktail produced Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It also unearthed the dark hearts of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe--those mid-century masters who sowed the literary seedbeds of modernism with a combination of primitive spiritualism and cosmopolitan sophistication.
Yet it took the following generation, primarily those born after Reconstruction, to advance the visual arts to where Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe had taken the literary field. Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Arthur Dove (1880-1946), John Marin (1870-1953), and many others translated the dark spiritual lyricism of these writers to the picture plane in a way that would not just rival but also depart from, influence, and often surpass European models. In the fine arts, there had certainly been many American talents. Yet American painting's proverbial slavishness to European schools was only underscored through much of its history by transnational talents like Benjamin West and James McNeill Whistler, artists who not only followed European styles but who also became, themselves, Europeans.
No painter has come to embody better the brooding vigor and new, native spirit of American modernism at the turn of the century as Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). In mind as well as action and body, the painter from Lewiston, Maine, a woebegone member of the Stieglitz 291 circle, came to epitomize the dark mysteries and contradictions of his literary antecedents. In photographs, especially in Stieglitz's iconic portrait from 1915-1916, Hartley's striking visage stares back--pointed ears, pinched snout, …