I am not a book of the month artist and do not paint pretty pictures; but when I am no longer here my name will register forever in the history of American Art and so that’s something too.
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)
Hartley’s life story was not a familiar one of an early American modernist. His life was troubled by the early deaths of several family members. Over the course of his life, he could never quite adjust to the feelings of isolation that plagued him in his youth. Moreover, his identity as a gay man further estranged him from society. With this in mind, it seems rather appropriate that Hartley created some of his most powerfully expressive works during his bouts of depression and on his trips to fairly remote locales.
The first mature paintings Hartley executed were expressive, Maine landscapes. The snow capped mountains, lush forests, and ominous clouds of the Eastern climate provided a dramatic atmosphere for the artist’s blossoming talent. In these early works, Hartley effortlessly suggests the powerful, divine qualities of nature.
When Hartley moved to New York in 1909, he was submersed in the avant-garde circle of the 291. Through his association with Alfred Stieglitz, Hartley interacted with such artists as Alfred Maurer, Edward Steichen, Max Weber, Abraham Walkowitz, and Marius de Zayas. Straight from the mouths of New York’s top modernists, Hartley learned of the new art movements developing in Europe. At the 291, he studied firsthand the art of Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Auguste Rodin. His New York education undoubtedly had an effect on his style. Over the following years, it evolved to incorporate aspects of European modernism. The most noticeable change was the adoption of primary colors painted in thick, heavy brushstrokes. Over the course of his travels to Europe, his manner developed into a confident, expressionist style.
In as early as 1915, critics noticed similarities between Hartley’s art and that of the ancient Australians and Indians. They professed that a spiritual tone was present in his brightly colored, abstract paintings. There assumptions were proven correct when he moved to the Southwest and spent time in Mexico during the 1910s and the early 1930s. The primitive figural style of Native American art greatly appealed to Hartley and is especially apparent in his later paintings. By the end of his life, he had come full circle, returning to seclusion and again painting deeply personal landscapes of the Maine coastline. (sullivangoss.com)