Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 334 pp., $55.00; $34.95 (paper)
The something woebegone about Marsden Hartley—that long ponderous face, those haunted pale eyes, those wide-brimmed black hats—has dampened his reputation. Born of English immigrant parents in the dismal mill town of Lewiston, Maine, he was wounded by the death of his mother when he was eight and a subsequent dispersal of his family that placed him in the care of an older sister; he became, he later wrote, “in psychology an orphan, in consciousness a lone left thing to make its way out for all time after that by itself.” Homosexual, homely, egocentric, shy, slow to develop as an artist, pious in an Emersonian-Episcopalian way, he became a global drifter, largely in Europe but including Mexico and Nova Scotia as, perennially short of cash, he occupied a succession of rented, shared, or borrowed quarters. At the age of sixty he returned, part-time, to Maine, dying there at sixty-six, in the middle of World War II, just as his paintings were beginning to sell and he had, for the first time ever, some spare money.
However, the impression given by the extensive retrospective exhibition occupying ten stately upstairs chambers of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is one of boldness, freshness, jubilance, and élan. Hartley was first exhibited in New York in 1909, when he was already thirty-two, at Alfred Stieg- litz’s avant-garde “291” gallery; he is therefore considered one of the “Stieg- litz circle,” of whom other members were John Marin, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O’Keeffe. These early American modernists have been overshadowed, even as the size of their canvases was dwarfed, by the Abstract Expressionists and the Pop artists whose spectacular scale and international impact made their American predecessors look indecisive—parochial spirits wistfully caught between imported Cubism and native mysticism.
Now that the magnificent monotones of the New York School have themselves sunk into art history, we can be more patient, perhaps, with the conflicted impulses of American art between the wars. Two such impulses, amid the general pull toward abstraction, were the wish, carried over from the nineteenth century, to render American landscape in its bald beauty and inhuman force, and the desire, inherited perhaps from the Puritans, to make a personal spiritual declaration. The two tendencies, the naturalistic and the mystical, were strong in both Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe, two Stieglitz protégés who never relaxed their sibling rivalry.
The oldest work on view in Hartford—Walt Whitman’s House, 328 Mickle Street, Camden, New Jersey (circa 1905)—could hardly be smaller and dowdier, a greenish-black frontal view of the modest residence in which the Good Gray Poet harbored his strength and nurtured his legend. Yet curious flickering flames edge the many windowpanes. Hartley, a poet as well as a painter, saw himself in terms of flames: “bright flames of spirit laughter/around all my seething frame.” His homage to Whitman carries a personal charge: Whitman’s paeans to male camaraderie and pansexual rapture gave high-minded permission to Hartley’s homosexuality and …