Byline: Stephen Goode, INSIGHT
In the more than four decades of his life as an artist, the American painter and poet Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) turned out works in an amazing array of styles. He could be representational or abstract. Some of his paintings are realistic or at least seem to be so, while others are mystical and sometimes occult. For a while, Cubism fascinated him and he painted (sort of) like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Some of his most striking canvases packed with bold, vigorous color and form Hartley did under the influence of fellow artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, whom he met and befriended in Europe.
Other great artists have taken up a variety of styles without diminishing their reputations Picasso famously so but with Hartley it's been otherwise. His variousness has led to confusion about his status as a painter: Did he paint well in the different ways he painted or is his work superficial? Is one of his styles more genuinely Hartleyesque and more profound and satisfying than the others?
These questions aren't settled in the splendid exhibition of Hartley's works now at the Phillips Collection in Washington. But surely this show of 90 of his paintings and 20 works on paper will go a long way toward convincing viewers that he is one of the great American artists, whose work is worthy of comparison with other American greats, including painters of an earlier generation such as Albert Pinkham Ryder (Hartley admired Ryder's haunting canvases enormously) and Winslow Homer. And worthy to be ranked, too, with the paintings of later artists such as Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield.
Hartley was born in the mill town of Lewiston, Maine, the son of English immigrants. His childhood was poor, but the central event of his early life was the death of his mother when Hartley was 8. Fifty years later, he recalled that trauma: "I was to know complete isolation from that moment onward," he wrote in his autobiography, Somehow a Past. Like many sensitive and lonely children, Hartley lived a happier childhood in his imagination. In a touching passage, again from his autobiography, he mentions the beauty of flowers he saw on his way to grammar school: "The flowers in this wooded piece ... were magical and I owe I think nearly everything to them."
The young Hartley left school to work in a Lewiston shoe factory. When his family moved to Cleveland, he worked there in a marble-quarry office, a job he lost when he played hooky to go on a painting trip with John Semon, a Cleveland artist with whom he had begun to study. The loss of a regular income hardly bothered him. Hartley had decided to be an artist, and throughout his life his determination and grit to pursue that very uncertain career rarely wavered despite the sacrifice and poverty it entailed. Always he read intensely, taking up Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essays he worshipped, but also such different writers as the early 17th-century German Christian mystic, Jakob B|hme
Hartley, who was homosexual, never married. He studied art in Cleveland and later in New York City. In 1909, he met the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and had a one-man show at Stieglitz's 291 gallery in May, an event that made Hartley's name known for the first time among New York trendsetters and collectors.
The year 1912 found him in Paris, where he met Gertrude Stein who said of his paintings, "At last an American original." But Hartley did not like France and was disgusted with what he called "the sickliness of the French." He traveled to Munich and then to Berlin, which he called (with approval) "ultramodern." He approved too of the "well-keptness and healthful system" of Germany. World War I brought him back to the United States.
Hartley later traveled to New Mexico, Mexico and again to Europe, painting everywhere he went. In the 1930s, he returned to Maine, the place of his birth, and turned out some of his most haunting canvases, both landscapes and portraits. …