Crossing the Atlantic with Marsden Hartley
By Margie Fuchs
During his lifetime, American modernist Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) travelled extensively, though he never made it to Louisiana: not the bayous of the southern state, but rather the expansive halls of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art on the outskirts of Copenhagen, in Humlebaek, Denmark. This fall, that’s finally going to change. Opening September 19th, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art will present “Marsden Hartley: A Retrospective,” the first major European survey of the artist’s oeuvre in over 60 years, and the largest European exhibition of his work to date.
As noted by the museum, Hartley was “a bridge between European and American modernism.” Born in 1877 as Edmund Hartley in the mill city of Lewiston, Maine, Hartley adopted his stepmother’s surname as a teenager and began studying art in his early 20s. Hartley’s talent quickly landed him marquee exhibitions in New York City, which in turn projected him across the Atlantic and into the heart of the European avant-garde. Today, Hartley is hailed as “America’s first great modern painter of the 20th century,” but remains relatively unknown to the European audience.
Ahead of The Louisiana’s retrospective, learn about the artist with these three facts:
1. Marsden Hartley was a leading member of the Stieglitz group
As a young man, Hartley’s artistic star rose quickly. After moving from Maine to Ohio, he earned a spot at the Cleveland School of Art, followed by funding to attend William Merritt Chase’s School of Art and enrollment at the National Academy of Design in New York City. In 1909, Hartley was introduced to photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz. A visionary proponent of modernism in the United States, Stieglitz recognized Hartley’s talent for capturing the dynamism of the natural world and took the young artist into his fold. Stieglitz’s renowned 291 Gallery opened Hartley’s first solo exhibition in New York City in 1909.
Exposure from the one-man exhibition, along with connections from Stieglitz’s extensive rolodex, helped Hartley get his finger on the pulse of the avant-garde. Similar to the other artists in the Stieglitz Circle, including Arthur Dove, John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe, Hartley employed techniques from concurrent European modernist movements to depict the natural world in his work. With Stieglitz’s promotion, American art collectors began to take notice. “There seems to be something indicative of art excitement in New York doesn’t there?” Hartley wrote. “I hope this counts for something.”
That “something” was a second successful show at 291 Gallery, which landed financing from Stieglitz to travel to Paris in 1912. While abroad, Hartley met fellow American expatriates, pioneering European modernists and engaged in philosophical discussions at Gertrude Stein’s salon. These travels continued to inform his ever-evolving approach to art throughout his career. Although Hartley painted “The Seashell” (1929) nearly two decades after his original trip to Europe, the juxtaposition of colors and perspective in the still life suggest the influence of Henri Matisse’s color theory, as well as the techniques of the French modernists, which he encountered in Europe.
The experience of meeting and working with these artists had a fundamental impact on Hartley’s work. Visitors to The Louisiana’s retrospective will be able to see the impact of French modernist style firsthand in over 110 of Hartley’s works, the majority of which are also temporarily moving from American museums and private collections for the show.
2. Hartley moved toward abstraction while living in Berlin
Hartley moved to Berlin in 1913 and fell into the thriving German Expressionist scene. There he befriended Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, leaders of the progressive Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) modernist group, inspiring him to begin experimenting with different artistic styles. Hartley’s still-lifes and naturalistic scenes later gave way to bold, emblematic abstractions. Fueled by his lifelong interest in mysticism, as well as the tenants of the Blue Rider group, Hartley underpinned his work with a sense of spirituality. This unique combination can be seen in “Berlin Series, No. 1” (1913), one of the earliest paintings from Hartley’s Amerika series. The piece presents an abstract interpretation of Native American themes, including the harvest, seasons and the place of living beings in the natural world.
The Amerika series placed Hartley at the forefront of the international art scene. In 1913, he exhibited at the Herbstsalon, the First German Autumn Salon in Berlin. Featuring work by international avant-garde artists ranging from The Blue Rider group to Cubists and Italian Futurists, the Herbstsalon sought to showcase the current state – and future – of modern art. Hartley’s early Berlin paintings were also shown at the landmark Armory Show in New York, which introduced the European avant-garde and its American interpretations to the U.S. audience, that same year. Many of these same works will be on view at The Louisiana, re-introducing European audiences to the depth of his work.
With the unfolding of World War I, Hartley’s abstractions took on another subject: the military. He translated the pageantry, dynamism and militarization of life in the Prussian capital into geometric symbols adorning his non-figurative compositions. In “Portrait of a German Officer,” (1914), Hartley synthesizes German Expressionist and Cubist styles to create a portrait of his friend Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg. Killed early in the War, von Freyburg is portrayed symbolically with the yellow “K.v.F” initials; his regiment number, 4; age at the time of his death, 24; and post-humous Iron Cross in the collage-like painting. Arguably Hartley’s most admired work, the piece commenced Hartley’s famed German Officer series and has often been cited as proof of Hartley’s romantic relationship with von Freyburg.
The escalation of the War in 1915 forced Hartley to move back to the United States, where he subsequently abandoned his abstract style.
3. Hartley was also a poet and author
Aside from being one of the foremost early twentieth century American artists, Hartley was also a prolific writer – an element that the Louisiana’s forthcoming show will prominently explore. His 1921 essay collection “Adventures in the Arts: Informal Chapters on Painters, Vaudeville and Poets” details his artistic interests and experiences, from the popularization of photography and the birth of Modernism to profiles of his acquaintances. “The papers in this book are not intended in any way to be professional treatises,” Hartley prefaced the collection. “They must be viewed in the light of entertaining conversations. Their possible value lies in their directness of impulse, and not in weight of argument.” With a conversational tone, “Adventures in the Arts” chronicles the rise of modern art, and Hartley’s place in the action.
Hartley was an avid reader of Walt Whitman and American Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose writings inspired his view of art – both visual and written – as a spiritual quest. His first poetry collection, “Twenty-five Poems,” was published by Robert McAlmon in 1923, during another one of Hartley’s sojourns to Europe.
The artist permanently returned to North America in the mid-1930s and set about capturing the rugged Northeastern landscape in paint and text. Hartley wrote about the northern geography with a sense of awe and even compared the inland coastline of Cape Ann, Massachusetts to primeval structures of Easter Island and Stonehenge. His painting “Summer en Route, Moraine-Dogtown” (1931), at the top of the article, depicts an abandoned town in Cape Ann with sweeping, expressionistic brushstrokes. To Hartley, the vacant settlement possessed a mystic quality only found in the natural world.
The people and landscape of Nova Scotia also inspired Hartley’s story “Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy.” While spending time in the Canadian province in 1935 and 1936, Hartley befriended the Masons, a local family. Their kinship informed the central relationship of “Cleophas and His Own.” The tragedy indicated in the story’s title was the drowning of the Mason’s two sons and their cousin, an event which is also referenced in Hartley’s painting “Off to the Banks” (1936).  The drowning casts a shadow over much of the work from Hartley’s later years, including his contemplative landscapes and seascapes of Maine.
Cover image: Marsden Hartley, American, 1877-1943. Still Life. 1921. Oil on panel. 20 x 15 3/4 inches. Signed by Hartley and dated 1920 on the verso. Private collection, courtesy of Jonathan Boos.
1. Alfred Stieglitz and Marsden Hartley. “My Dear Stieglitz: Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz, 1912-1915.” Ed. James Timothy Voorhies. University of South Carolina Press. 2002.
2. Robert Torchia. “Marsden Hartley,” NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/constituent/1375 (accessed September 09, 2019).
4. Marsden Hartley. “Adventures in the Arts: Informal Chapters on Painters, Vaudeville and Poets.” Boni and Liveright. 1921.
6. Elizabeth McCausland. “Marsden Hartley.” University of Minnesota Press. 1952.