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Marsden Hartley

Written by Brett Nelson

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Posted on September 26 2019

Born: January 4, 1877, Lewiston, Maine, United States
Died: September 2, 1943, Ellsworth, Maine, United States

An American Modernist painter, Marsden Hartley was born in Lewiston, Maine on January 4, 1877, to English immigrant parents. The youngest of nine children, Hartley’s mother died when he was only eight years old and he spent his youth in the care of his aunt. His father remarried four years after the death of his mother later to Martha Marsden, whose surname he adopted as his first name upon moving to Cleveland, Ohio to join them in 1893. He gained a scholarship at the Cleveland School of Art and began taking private lessons with John Semon, a Barbizon-style painter. He also participated in summer classes with a local impressionist, Cullen Yates, excelling to such an extent that a local trustee provided him with financial backing to study painting at the New York School of Art under Willian Merritt Chase. He moved to New York in 1899 and later transferred to the National Academy of Design. During the summers he returned to Maine to paint landscapes and began to view art as a spiritual quest.

Hartley’s love affair with Maine continued upon the completion of his studies when he moved to an abandoned farm near Lovell, Maine in 1908. The year before he had attended a retreat for mystics, immersing himself in the study of Eastern religions and enhancing his belief that art was a spiritual calling. The works he produced in Maine during 1908 were influenced by Maurice Brazil Prendergast, who he met in Boston earlier the same year. Prendergast’s neo-impressionist style is evident throughout the works painted by Hartley in Maine that year. Considered his first mature works, these landscapes caught the eye of art impressionist and promotor, Alfred Stieglitz, who provided Hartley with his first solo exhibition at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in 1909. This exhibition provided the platform for Hartley to explore new methods of painting.

In 1912, with the financial backing of Stieglitz, Hartley traveled to Paris where he was introduced to the European modernist painters. Here, he encountered the works of Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, and Pablo Picasso, among numerous other French modernist painters. In 1913, he moved to Berlin and encountered some of the great expressionist painters including Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky as well as collecting Bavarian folk art to further expand his horizons. During his time in Berlin, he developed a close bond with Prussian lieutenant, Karl von Freyburg, who became a recurring subject in Hartley’s works. The death of von Freyburg during the war hit Hartley hard, with many scholars interpreting the work of Hartley regarding von Freyburg as his display of homosexual feelings towards the lieutenant.

The outbreak of war forced Hartley to move back to the United States in 1915. He quickly became unsettled and moved frequently from place to place, a habit that would become a characteristic of the next two decades of his career. Between 1916 and 1921, he worked across the country including California, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and New York among other places. In 1921 he returned to Paris and Berlin where he stayed for two years. He returned to the United States once again in 1930, declaring he wanted to become the “Painter of Maine”. However, over the subsequent years, he was active in Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, Germany, and Bermuda among others. Suffering from financial hardship, Hartley broke with Stieglitz in 1937 after a solo exhibition failed to produce sales. He continually found himself drawn back to Maine, painting scenes around the Corea coast and Lovell. The final years of his life were plagued by poor health and he died from heart failure in Ellsworth, Maine on September 2, 1943. His ashes were scattered on the Androscoggin River.