Hartley's Harsh Art; Found Beauty in in His Pain

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

Hartley's Harsh Art; Found Beauty in in His Pain


Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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