Marsden Hartley & American Modernism

By Panero, James | New Criterion, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Marsden Hartley & American Modernism


Panero, James, New Criterion


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, Roman nose, avian brow. His eyes, a milkweed white, seem blind. Certainly no great American painter has more fascinated and eluded art history than this physiognomical sphinx. As a living artist Hartley avoided commercial success in the same way that he now deflects quick judgment. Recalling those words that Charles Baudelaire reserved for Poe, Hartley's existence might well have been more stable had he "been prepared to regularize his genius and apply his creative gifts in a manner more suited to the climate of America ... another--a crude cynic, this one--tells us that however fine may have been his genius, it would have been better for him to have had no more than talent, talent always yielding easier returns than genius." Instead, his life was

   but a vast prison in which he ran about with
   the fevered restlessness of a creature born to
   breathe the air of a sweeter-scented world--nought
   but a great, gas-lit Barbary--and that
   his interior, spiritual life as a poet, or even as
   drunkard, was no more than a perpetual effort
   to escape the influence of that antipathetic
   atmosphere.

Well, these are rather dire assessments (even ignoring the anti-American undertones in Baudelaire's harangue). Yet for Hartley, perhaps even more than for Poe, the words hold true. Following a 1943 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and Barbara Haskell's Whitney Museum of Art survey in 1980, Hartley is now enjoying only his third comprehensive exhibition ever, with over one hundred works at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. (1) This fact alone should give students of modernism some pause. The triumph of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School in the 1950s heralded the absolute supremacy of post-war American art. It also demoted the legacy of the first generation of American modernists, especially the circle of Stieglitz (in deference to regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton).

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