Born in Lewiston, Maine, Marsden Hartley became one of the most famous early modernist artists of twentieth-century American art, known for landscapes, still lifes, and some portraits. His painting showed a focus on monumental shapes, especially clouds and landscape forms, and his unique style has been described by critic Sadakichi Hartmann as “an extreme and up-to-date impressionism” and “emerging modernism that evolved through Impressionism”. (Gerdts 291)
He had a lonely, insecure childhood because his mother died when he was eight years old, and he was raised by an older sister when his father left to remarry. He studied art in Cleveland, Ohio and then in 1898 went to the Chase School in New York and at the National Academy of Design. He continued to spend much time in Maine painting landscapes, and by 1909 had his first exhibition, which was held at New York Gallery 291, run by Alfred Stieglitz. There he became involved with a social circle of modernists that included Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, and John Marin.
In 1912, he first went to Europe where he had further exposure to modernism, and from 1913 to 1915 he was in Germany. In Paris, he experimented with Cezanne-like still lifes and was befriended by Gertrude Stein. In Germany, he was influenced by Expressionism, and especially by military pageantry. It is said that his greatest contribution to early 20th-century American modernism has been his brilliant synthetic military icons known as German Officer Portraits. He developed a close homosexual relationship with a handsome young Prussian officer who was killed in World War I.
Being encouraged by Stieglitz to explore American subjects, Hartley turned to American Indian objects and designs. In 1918, he eagerly accepted an invitation of Mabel Dodge and her husband, artist Maurice Sterne, to visit them in Taos, New Mexico. By then, a Colony of Artists of eastern painters had formed, but Hartley remained aloof from them because he thought them provincial in their rejection of modernism. However, he loved the surroundings and did landscapes and Indian paintings, and this New Mexico work became the subject of a 1998 traveling exhibition titled “Marsden Hartley: American Modern,” organized by the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota.
In 1919, he returned to New York and completed a set of oils on New Mexico subjects, which had influenced his style to be somewhat more realistic. During the next decade, he spent much time in Europe, New England, and Mexico and was joined in Mexico by photographer Paul Strand, painter Andrew Dasburg, and poet Hart Crane. In 1936 he painted for several years in the fishing community of Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia, and he also continued to do many landscapes of his native Maine where he spent his last years.
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
William Gerdts, American Impressionism