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 provided a lesson in artistic courage.
Though three decades were to pass before Hartley’s painted celebrations of the male body, his landscapes quickly acquired a naked force and individuality. Storm Clouds, Maine (1906–1907) employed the overlapping “stitch” stroke of the contemporary Italian Giovanni Segantini, to show a zigzag of sunlight imposed on a mountainside by a gap in the torrential clouds. Carnival of Autumn (1908) loosened the technique to replace spatial depth with running stripes of red and gold, under a sky whose clouds have already assumed the surreal lumpiness—clods of vapor—peculiar to Hartley. The Ice-Hole, Maine (1908–1909) and Deserted Farm (1909) are yet more expressionistically rough and stark; his clouds are as solid as the earth and in close conversation with it, like those in the seascapes of Albert Pinkham Ryder. Hartley slightly knew Ryder when both, in 1909, lived on West 15th Street, one as a struggling novice and the other as a notorious old eccentric residing in a nest of junk and sporting a long beard and wool skullcap. The elder painter’s work was a revelation to Hartley, who later wrote that he “gave us first and last an incomparable sense of pattern and austerity of mood” and “saw with an all too pitiless and pitiful eye the element of helplessness in things.”
Stieglitz, in the course of a quarrel in 1923, wrote Hartley, “You were given your original Show in ‘291’ because of my reading Suffering—Spiritual anguish—in your face.” Though Hartley’s sales were few and far between, Stieglitz continued to be indispensably supportive. It was he who arranged the funds when Hartley, all of thirty-five, traveled to Europe at last to drink directly from the springs of Western art. My Dear Stieglitz publishes the letters they exchanged, at a proportion heavily tilted toward Hartley’s, between 1912, when the painter sailed for Paris, and 1915, when he returned for a second time from Germany. He was a copious letter-writer, in a run-on, dash-heavy style breathless with neediness and self-description; the letters to his niece, Norma Berger, are a treasure often quoted by Hartley scholars. Those to Stieglitz trace his rather rapid disillusion with Paris. The artists “all talk so glibly but what do they produce”:
Apart from Renoir and the Cézannes one may see occasionally there is absolutely nothing worth looking at. I have been quite shocked of late with the mediocrity of men like Flandrin, Friesz—Manguin—it is too dreadful. Matisse becomes one of the gods after this terrible stuff.
French men, furthermore, struck him as “hideous”: “I turn to the Germans as to the gods—if there was ever a more ridiculous lot of males as a clan it is these French men.” A visit to Berlin in 1913 confirms his Germanophilia:
One sees such fine types all about—a fine extravagance of physical splendour. I think nature is especially interested in her German product. The general type is so well formed and equipped with energy—there is here a fine creative tendency in the race. None of the sickliness of the French.
Moving to Berlin later that year, he arrives in a season of celebrations and revels in the ubiquitous military presence:
The military life adds so much in the way of a sense of perpetual gaiety here in Berlin…those huge cuirassiers of the Kaiser’s special guard, all in white—white leather breeches skin tight, high plain enamel boots—those gleaming, blinding medieval breast plates of silver and brass—making the eye go black when the sun glanced like a spear as the bodies moved. There were the inspiring helmets with the imperial eagle, and the white manes hanging down. There was six foot of youth under all this garniture—everyone on a horse, and every horse white—that is how I got it, and it went into an abstract picture of soldiers riding into the sun.
Up through 1915, with war declared and anti-German sentiment rising in the barely neutral United States, Hartley clung to his Berlin residence, his vain hope of becoming a successful artist there, and his good opinion of the Germans, though one piece of praise eerily anticipates the methodical ruthlessness of the Holocaust:
The genius is always despised for his peculiar efficiency and Germans do not dream of war—they do it with system and with all the methods of business that any business requires.
Hartley’s first major phase, dealing with German subjects and memories, is given a starring role in the Hartford exhibit, preceded by a beautiful Still Life of 1912, suggesting a heavier-handed Cézanne, and by several large mystical/musical canvases, thinly painted and hectically composed, influenced by the Blaue Reiter theories. Hartley had absorbed them, and Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art (1910), before venturing to Germany. His early German canvases—Portrait of Berlin and The Warriors, both from 1913—continue a sketchy, thinly painted manner, his version of Macke’s and Delaunay’s stained-glass colors. Arcane symbols—eight-pointed stars, the figure 8 in a triangle—further attenuate the effect; the “abstract picture of soldiers riding into the sun” mentioned above turns the curaissed white warriors into rather feebly outlined dolls, symmetrically arranged among mock cathedral arches; all but a few in profile are presenting a rear view of their eight-starred backs and their horses’ rumps.
Just as one should not hasten to patronize Hartley’s positive view of a more innocent Germany, one should not rush to read anal symbols in his celebration of military manhood. But inviting sphincterlike rings dominate Himmel (circa 1914–1915) and the thrust of phallic penetration is alarmingly vivid in Military (1913). The Aero (circa 1914), the catalog explains, “takes its name from the flaming red spot in the upper half of the canvas, which is meant to depict the flames at the rear of a dirigible engine.” Zeppelins with their flaming anuses frequently passed over Berlin—“a fascinating thing which transports one somehow every time one sees any of them,” Hartley wrote Stieglitz in June of 1914.
After the guns of August, he did not paint for several months. The fall casualty lists began to include the names of his friends, most painfully that of his close friend Karl von Freyburg. Hartley wrote Stieglitz that the slain von Freyburg had been “in every way a perfect being—physically—spiritually & mentally beautifully balanced—24 years young—and of all things—necessary.” He embarked upon a series of commemorative paintings in some of which military symbols—banners, stirrups, spurs, white helmet tassels, crosses (von Freyburg was awarded an Iron Cross in a campaign preceding his death near Amiens)—are grouped to form the shape of an absent body. Portrait of a German Officer (1914), which passed from the Stieglitz Collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the first and most impressive of these.
Two numbered paintings (Painting No. 47, Berlin, 1914–1915, and Painting No. 49, Berlin, 1914) more distinctly communicate the human shape, one on a black background and the other on a white. The majority of these so-called War Motif canvases were primed in black, which leaks through the rousing colors. Two abstractions (The Iron Cross, 1914–1915, and E. (German Officer—Abstraction), circa 1915), full of ring shapes and the stripes and black-and-white checks of military flags, are the most densely, stridently hued, around a keynote of red. Georgia O’Keeffe said that these paintings, exhibited in New York in 1916, were “like a brass band in a small closet.” They also call to mind a saying of Cézanne’s that Hartley had pinned up on his wall: “When color reaches richness form attains fulness.” In Hartley’s most satisfying paintings, colors jam the frame, filling every inch of space as if wedged there.
He returned from Germany but did not settle down. His peripatetic life finds reflection in the restlessness of his work as it trails through the rooms at the Wadsworth Atheneum. In the very period of his War Motif paintings he was also producing large canvases on American Indian themes. In November of 1914 he wrote Stieglitz, “I find myself wanting to be an Indian—to paint my face with the symbols of that race I adore.” The Germans liked Romantic images of the Native Americans, but Hartley’s pastiche of teepee shapes, staring birds, and braves in feather headdress look like faded rugs, carrying much less conviction than his thickly dark still life Indian Pottery (Jar and I dol) from 1912, or the rugged naive paintings of New Mexican religious statuettes from 1918–1919. A rather Klee-like still life, Handsome Drinks (circa 1916), strikes a bright note of civilized recreation, as does A Nice Time (circa 1916), with its ruddy banana and tinkling colors, one lime-green lower corner somehow chiming with two corners of pale salmon above. Hartley could be as impudent and lyrical a colorist as Matisse.
At about this time in his necessarily thrifty career he switched from canvas to various sorts of composite board, which he said took forceful brush strokes, was easy to transport, and cost less than a quarter of what canvas did. His cheap brushes, we are told in an illuminating catalog essay by Stephen Kornhauser and Ulrich Birkmaier, left many a stray hair in the paint. His style of brush stroke, usually as fixed as handwriting in a mature painter, varied from the sweeping, greasy strokes of Landscape, New Mexico (1923) and New Mexico Recollections—Storm (1923) to the dry dabble of the Provincetown/Bermuda semi-abstractions Elsa (1917) and Trixie (circa 1916–1917). Painting Mont Sainte-Victoire, Aix-en-Provence (1927), he parodies Cézanne’s tight parallel strokes in electric violets and pinks, and in Mountains in Stone, Dogtown (1931) his strokes pursue shapes that writhe like foreshortened figures in a Thomas Hart Benton mural. From the same series, done in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Flaming Pool, Dogtown (1931) offers an especially happy meeting of Cézanne’s patient intensity with a brusquer, more expressionist handling.
If all these shifts have a direction, it is perhaps toward a style of rich colors and slightly ragged black outlines, like that of the later Max Beckmann, whose self-portraits and enigmatic allegories were on display, with other contemporary German work, in the 1930s in New York. Certainly there is much Beckmann in Hartley’s “archaic” (his word) portraits, both group and individual, of the Masons, a family of Nova Scotia fishermen with whom he lived, drank, and possibly loved for stretches in 1935 and 1936; the idyll ended when two of the brothers, Donny and Alty, were drowned with a cousin in a September gale. Their portraits, done from memory, begin with the tableau Fishermen’s Last Supper (1938), in which the two drowned sons are given, in the place of halos, the eight-pointed stars with which Hartley’s beautiful German soldiers had been endowed, and ended with the same group and title in a 1941 version. In between, there are individual portraits (under false names) of the mother, father, the forlorn sister, and Hartley’s favorite, Alty, with a rose above his ear and the fanciful name Adelard the Drowned, Master of the “Phantom” (circa 1938–1939).
The portraits have a saintly sternness and primitive frontality, monumental but gentle, the subjects’ big limp hardworking paws on display in the foreground. They look lovingly carved in paint. To this same blocky style belongs a charmingly wooden flower study, (Flowers) Roses from Hispania (1936), and the remarkable Smelt Brook Falls (1937), a portrait of a white waterfall as firmly posed and decisively angled, in its setting of autumn brown and bare black branch, as a still life. There is a cartoony quality to Hartley’s later works, but then the Thirties were a heyday of comic strips and caricatures; their jaunty quality served other contemporary artists of high intent—Grant Wood, Ben Shahn, Jack Levine.
Hartley’s Nova Scotian interlude with its tragic end had the effect of bringing him back to Maine. In this decade of artistic regionalism, he declared himself “the painter from Maine,” emphasizing the “the,” even though Marin and Andrew Wyeth and others were also in the field. From 1937 on, slowly letting go of New York City, he spent part of each year in Maine, the locales including Georgetown, Vinalhaven, Portland, Bangor, and the isolated fishing village of Corea, where he lived until his death. He came home in several senses—to the mountains and the sea that were in his blood and, in a number of Beckmannesque male figures, to his homoeroticism. A stunning self-portrait, Sustained Comedy (1939), shows him (with a nod to Walt Kuhn’s painted clowns) as a flaming queen, martyred by an arrow piercing each blue eye, consoled by butterflies and birds on his shoulder, marked by tattoos of nudes and a crucifixion and a sailboat, a starfish and a rose; his hair is dyed blond and his unsmiling face is rouged and lipsticked, beautified like that, perhaps, of the man who twenty-seven years before, fresh in Paris, had gone to the Quatres Arts Ball and boasted to Stieglitz, “quite the most wonderful spectacle probably in existence—2000 people in Arabian Nights costume—myself as gorgeous as any in effect.”
This confrontational self-outing clears the way for Flaming American (Swim Champ) (1939–1940) and Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy(1940), two panels commissioned to decorate a gymnasium, near nudes of great-chested young men, the former dotted with blond hair and the latter a black-furred gladiator, a burly kouros, with a blank yet lovely mask of a face. As much as in a Malliol or Lachaise statue of feminine grandeur erotic focus deforms anatomy; the locals in Down East Young Blades (circa 1940) have tiny heads with oval blue eyes like those of a Modigliani mistress. A real woman, in a bathing suit, is admitted to On the Beach (1940), but she is a stiff little cutout, no bigger than a dog, compared to the deeply browned bodies of the two male bathers, lounging brothers to the standing Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine (1940–1941).
Hartley was not oblivious to female charms; he had several heterosexual involvements and even was claimed as father by a gentleman born in 1915. But his eye, as he aged and weakened and fattened, went to squared-off male flesh, which received its weirdest tribute in Christ Held by Half-Naked Men (1940–1941), an all-male Pietà whose mourners wear little lobstermen’s hats like miners’ caps. The dead Christ has a head the size of a nugget, while his legs and arms trail into nothing. In the skimpy annals of American religious art this is among the strangest but not the least moving instance: a chorus of love objects silently cherishing “a lone left thing.”
Men, and mountains: after making the strenuous trip, for a man so out of shape, to the base of Mount Katahdin (whose bleak summit had been marvelously described by Hartley’s hero Thoreau), the artist sketched for six days and eventually did nearly twenty paintings between 1939 and 1942, of which four are on view in Hartford. Each has its qualities but all share one we might call yearning—the lakeside trees and mountaintops reach upward toward those opaque cloud-boulders, and the elemental gesture is not so different from the crashing upsurge of water in The Wave (1940) and the serenely phallic The Lighthouse (1940– 1941), where waves and clouds are indistinguishably of the same raw white. The silhouette of Mount Katahdin, Autumn No. 2 (1939–1940) is pure black, against a child’s sky of clouds like islands in a stark blue sea, and the autumnal red is not far from the red of the war paintings: it’s all as economical as a linoleum cut. Under his touch the world dissolved into its elements; the wandering painter had arrived at iconography, at a way of painting as primitive and resonant as Ryder’s. He wrote a friend about his trip to Mount Katahdin, “I feel as if I had seen God for the first time. I found him nonchalantly solemn.”
February 27, 2003