“My native continent”

Elizabeth Finch, Donna M. Cassidy and Randall R. Griffey

Elizabeth Finch, Donna M. Cassidy and Randall R. Griffey Art

Fig. 2. Church at Head Tide, Maine by Hartley, 1938. Oil on commercially prepared paperboard, 28 ⅛ by 22 ⅛ inches. Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine, bequest of Adelaide Moise.

Marsden Hartley (Fig. 1) is best known as an innovative interpreter of the European avant-garde. His most celebrated paintings have been those he made in the 1910s, when he was among the first American artists to respond to expressionism and cubism. Less understood is an influence on Hartley’s art that was equally strong and closer to home: the state where he was born in 1877 and died in 1943. Marsden Hartley’s Maine—co-organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Colby College Museum of Art—is the most ambitious museum exhibition yet to consider Hartley in light of his complex and deeply creative connection to the place that was essential to the origin and evolution of his art. The artist began and ended his career in Maine, and his return home in the final chapter of his life quickly became codified as a narrative of triumph in American art history, but this is only part of a larger and more compelling story.

Fig. 1. Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) by Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), 1916. Gelatin silver print, 9 ¾ by 7 ⅞ inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, purchase, gift of Marsden Hartley, by exchange, and gift of Grace M. Mayer, by exchange.

Hartley was born in Lewiston, a center of Maine’s powerful textile industry. His English immigrant parents, who were drawn to the area by the mills, named their son Edmund. When Hartley was eight his mother died, and he was sent to live with a sister in nearby Auburn. He attributed his lifelong loneliness to this early loss. Eventually joining his family in Ohio, where his father had moved after remarrying, Hartley studied with two local landscape painters and subsequently enrolled at the Cleveland School of Art. A patron offered the aspiring artist a stipend to study in New York, and one of his teachers gave him a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson, igniting the interest in Transcendentalism that would contribute to the expressive tenor of his early landscapes.

Fig. 3. Smelt Brook Falls, 1937. Oil on commercially prepared paperboard, 28 by 22 ⅞ inches. Saint Louis Art Museum, Eliza McMillan Trust.

In the spring of 1900 Hartley returned to Maine in search of artistic inspiration. The American impressionists, and, most notably, Winslow Homer had put the state on the map of paintable venues, while the tourist industry promoted the Maine wilderness to weary urbanites in search of respite from modern living. The state’s western border with New Hampshire, where the White Mountains preside, was the first place Hartley claimed for his art. Over the next decade he moved between New York, Boston, and the cluster of small towns near the village of Lovell, Maine, establishing the itinerancy that would shape his life. During this period of creative discovery, intimations of Hartley’s homosexuality entered his letters, and literature, especially the poems of Walt Whitman, provided an anchor for his emerging artistic identity. In 1906 Hartley changed his first name to Marsden, appropriating his stepmother’s surname. His longest stay in western Maine—from the spring of 1908 through the winter that followed—generated an extraordinary group of paintings and drawings, postimpressionist in manner, sometimes verging on the abstract and demonstrating Hartley’s inventive, experimental disposition (Figs. 7, 8). Returning to New York, Hartley secured the exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291, that launched his career.

Fig. 4. The Silence of High Noon—Midsummer, c. 1907–1908. Oil on canvas, 30 ½ inches square. Collection of Jan T. and Marica Vilcek, promised gift to the Vilcek Foundation Collection.

Among the works Hartley debuted at 291 was The Silence of High Noon—Midsummer (Fig. 4). Surging energies possess the trees and meadow in this midsummer scene, in which a mountain absorbs shadows cast by clouds that appear to rival its solidity. Hartley adopted the stitchlike brushstrokes in this work after seeing color reproductions of paintings by the Italian artist Giovanni Segantini (1858–1899) in the German magazine Jugend. Contemporaneous interest in traditional crafts, and especially weaving, may have influenced Hartley’s lush interpretation of Segantini’s technique. Perceiving a connection between woven materials and painting Hartley observed, “One sees the sources of nature [in] these created things as well as in pictures.”1 Hartley’s fascination with folk culture extended to the local people he encountered, whom he depicted in the midst of their labors and in the context of domestic life (Fig. 7).

Fig. 5. Desertion, 1910. Oil on commercially prepared paperboard, 14 ½ by 22 ⅛ inches. Colby College Museum of Art, gift of the Alex Katz Foundation.

During the summer of 1909, Hartley remained in New York City and relied upon his recollections of western Maine to create some of his most somber and haunting paintings. The majestic postimpressionist landscapes evocative of music and poetry ceded to variations on these same rural locales now beset by atrophy and ruin. Stieglitz attributed the dramatic shift in Hartley’s work to his descent into depression after an artistic debut that brought only modest recognition. Yet this period of seeming retrenchment coincided with Hartley’s discovery of a creative affinity that significantly shaped his art thereafter. The “Dark Landscapes,” as the paintings of 1909–1910 came to be known, were inspired by Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917), an artist admired by Hartley and others for his dreamlike paintings and his dedication to working from the imagination.

Fig. 6. Three Flowers in a Vase, 1917. Oil and metal leaf on glass, 13 ⅛ by 7 ⅝ inches. Private collection.

Typical of the Dark Landscapes, Desertion (Fig. 5) displays the gloomy tones characteristic of Ryder. Hartley’s ominous title refers to the deserted farmhouse at the base of the mountain that dwarfs it. Modest dwellings such as this can be found in many of Hartley’s works and can be seen as inland analogues to Ryder’s storm-tossed boats. In the early twentieth century, Maine’s many abandoned farms reflected the combined effect of Western expansion, industrialization, and the consolidation of larger farming enterprises into fewer hands.

Hartley’s first Maine period ended in 1911, and his second would begin in 1937. In the interim he made only brief trips to the state, his most productive being the summer and early autumn of 1917 spent at the Summer School of Graphic Arts in Ogunquit, run by painter Hamilton Easter Field (1873–1922) and sculptor Robert Laurent (1890–1970). Field offered Hartley a room by the sea, most certainly one of the fishing shacks in Perkins Cove converted into studios and furnished with antiques, decoys, weathervanes, hooked rugs, folk portraits, and reverse paintings on glass—objects that Laurent and others had acquired on their rambles around rural Maine. The Ogunquit colonists viewed this traditional folk art as inspiration for modernism, and Hartley was no exception. He took up glass painting, drawing from both local examples and the hinterglasmalerei (glass painting) he had collected in Germany. While his Ogunquit work does not represent Maine as such, it does spring from Maine sources and the practices of earlier American artists as models. It shows, moreover, how Hartley’s conception of his native state was a product of his travels and a marriage of American and Continental influences. Three Flowers in a Vase (Fig. 6), for example, combines the glass painting style of the Blaue Reiter artists Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and Gabriele Münter (1877–1962) with the flat forms and space of the folk portraits collected in the Ogunquit art colony.

Fig. 7. Old Maid Crocheting, 1908. Graphite on paper, 12 by 9 inches. Colby College Museum of Art, purchase from the Mellon Art Purchase Fund and the A. A. D’Amico Art Collection Fund.

Hartley traveled frequently throughout the interwar period in search of artistic direction as well as a place where he felt he belonged. He spent much of the 1920s back in Europe—in Berlin, Paris, and southern France. His renewed expatriation coincided and eventually conflicted with Stieglitz’s promotion of a circle of artists—Georgia O’Keeffe and John Marin, particularly— because of their association with American locales. Stieglitz’s enthusiastic advocacy of homegrown modern art prompted Hartley to revisit American sites he had previously experienced and painted. In 1924, for example, he reinterpreted and elaborated on his Dark Landscapes of Maine while living and working in Paris (Fig. 11), a clear instance of his continued artistic engagement with his native state even while abroad.

By 1930, as Stieglitz continued to promote modern artists “rooted” in American locales, Hartley had come to comprehend gradually that Maine would be essential to his gaining recognition as a great American artist. He returned to the United States and began to paint regional locales, proclaiming his Yankee artistic heritage in 1932 in a solo exhibition at the Downtown Gallery, Pictures of New England by a New Englander. Then, in 1937, in the poetic essay “On the Subject of Nativeness—A Tribute to Maine,” in the catalogue to an exhibition of his work mounted by Stieglitz at his gallery An American Place, Hartley wrote: “I wish to declare myself the painter from Maine. . . . I say to my native continent of Maine, be patient and forgiving, I will soon put my cheek to your cheek, expecting the welcome of the prodigal.”2

Fig. 8. Self-Portrait, c. 1908. Charcoal on paper, 11 ⅞ by 8 ⅞ inches. Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, bequest of Hudson D. Walker from the Ione and Hudson D. Walker Collection.

After this exhibition Hartley summered in Georgetown—an area pictured in several paintings, including Smelt Brook Falls (Fig. 3), one of the first Maine landscapes he exhibited at his inaugural solo exhibition at the Hudson Walker Gallery in New York in 1938. A compositional scheme he had first explored around 1910, the vertically oriented arrangement focuses on the waterfall’s powerful rush toward the viewer, who seems placed in the foreground pool. Reiterating his desire “to paint only Maine and put Maine really on the art map as is my right,”3 Hartley set out to reacquaint himself with his home state by writing about its artistic, literary, and economic history in several essays—“This Country of Maine” and “The Six Greatest New England Painters,” in addition to “On the Subject of Nativeness.” Interpreting Maine’s past, he identified powerful signs of place: churches, logs, and waves. The poet Edwin Arlington Robinson’s writings about small- town Maine were the wellspring of Hartley’s late white-steepled church paintings. In 1937 he stopped in Head Tide planning to paint Robinson’s birthplace, but found the nearby Congregational church (Fig. 2) more appealing, describing it as the “amazing little white church which no one has done and is ‘mine’ really” and painting it in the following years.4 Hartley’s late expressionist style renders the building flat, as an icon, and gives a melancholy twist to a characteristically inspiriting regional image, its darkened windows and lunettes, memoriallike stone blocks, and winter setting suggestive of abandonment and loss—themes that run through Hartley’s art as well as Robinson’s poems.

Fig. 9. Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, 1940–1941. Initialed and dated “M. H. / 40 – 41” at lower right. Oil on hardboard, 40 ⅛ by 30 inches. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn.

Robert P. Tristram Coffin’s book Kennebec, Cradle of Americans, also discussed in Hartley’s Maine essays, narrates the story of the state’s great forests, the “evergreen empire” that was the foundation of the past shipping and shipbuilding trades and the present lumber and paper industries represented by Hartley in his many logging paintings. In Abundance (Fig. 10) the cut wood that nearly fills the painting’s surface is set against an evergreen thicket. But within this bounty is a stand of bare trees—a reminder of the effects that the lumber and paper industries had on the state’s forests—a gesture of sympathy with emerging conservation efforts.5

Hartley’s adoption of the coastline as a signature subject was inspired by the seascapes of Winslow Homer, whom he singled out as the foremost Maine painter. Between 1940 and 1942, Hartley produced several paintings (see Fig. 12) that powerfully evoke Homer’s epic pictures of Prouts Neck. Massive waves dominate these compositions, along with dark, stormy skies reminiscent of Ryder. Under Hartley’s brush, the water has undergone a kind of transubstantiation, becoming, like the shoreline, rocklike, iconic, and threatening. Such views invoke the deaths of loved ones Hartley lost at sea, including the poet Hart Crane, who committed suicide by throwing himself overboard from an ocean liner in 1932, and Alty and Donny Mason, sons of the family Hartley boarded with on East Point Island, Nova Scotia, who drowned in a storm in September 1936.

Fig. 10. Abundance, 1939–1940. Initialed “M. H.” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 40 ⅛ by 30 inches. Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire.

As he refocused his art on Maine, Hartley not only returned to depicting the state’s landscape, but its people. Portraying lobster fishermen, lumberjacks, hunters, and athletes, he assembled a fraternity of stoic, hyper-masculine rural hunks who appear tough but also tender, immediate yet remote. Many of them are isolated, like saints in an icon, and often appear with regional attributes, such as a buoy, a fish, or a piece of rope. Individually and as a group, Hartley’s late figure paintings manifest his conception of what he called a “fine new type,” epitomized by the invigorated and vital Yankee male. Hartley exhibited these paintings throughout the early 1940s, in the midst of intense surveillance and criminalization of homosexuality. Consequently, they appear in retrospect to be daring extensions of private desire into the public arena. However, critics in the painter’s own day turned a blind eye to their homoerotic potency, if they recognized it at all, emphasizing—even lauding—their “masculine,” “primitive,” and national character.

Fig. 11. Paysage, 1924. Oil on canvas, 32 inches square. Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, bequest of Hudson D. Walker from the Ione and Hudson D. Walker Collection.

Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine (Fig. 9) exemplifies this new type. Based on sketches that Hartley made at Old Orchard Beach, a stretch of sandy beach south of Portland, the painting also marks the artist’s most explicit reference to the work of Paul Cézanne, whose The Bather the Maine painter would have seen on visits to the Museum of Modern Art. In 1940 MoMA lent this work to an exhibition at the New York World’s Fair, where Hartley likely saw it again, along with other key paintings by the French master. Hartley’s male bather is darker than Cézanne’s, his tanned skin silhouetted against a bright cloud-filled sky, and is more erotically charged. A critical dimension of Hartley’s campaign to become recognized as Maine’s greatest and most representative modern artist was his association with Mount Katahdin, which rises more than fifty-two hundred feet in Baxter State Park. The northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Katahdin served as a powerful geological symbol, not only for Mainers and the Native American peoples of the region, but also for those residing beyond the state’s borders.6 In his personal correspondence, Hartley expressed his desire to serve as Katahdin’s “official portrait painter.”7

Fig. 12. Evening Storm, Schoodic, Maine, 1942. Initialed and dated “M. H. / 42” at lower right. Oil on Masonite, 30 by 40 inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest.

Hartley’s paintings of the mountain mark the culmination of the most enduring and dramatic thematic arc in his oeuvre—harkening back to his earliest paintings of Maine’s western hills and his subsequent career-long fascination with the mountain as subject. The view of Katahdin that Hartley adopted shows the mountain’s profile to its most impressive effect (Fig. 13). He developed a four-part compositional scheme for his pictures: lake, foothills, mountain, and a strip of sky often with rocklike clouds, a combination that reprises his earliest paintings of Maine. Hartley also used Mount Katahdin and its surroundings to explore the profound tension between permanence (in the form of monumental geology) and change (the seasons and the passage of time). Hartley first exhibited paintings of Mount Katahdin in New York in the spring of 1940, and by the time of his death in 1943, his series extended to more than a dozen paintings. His serial approach was fueled by his admiration of Japanese printmakers Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, renowned for views of Mount Fuji, a profound geological corollary to Katahdin for Hartley.8

Fig. 13. Mount Katahdin (Maine), Autumn, #2, 1939–1940. Inscribed “Mt. Ktaadn (Maine)/ Autumn #2 / Marsden Hartley/ 1939–40” on the back. Oil on canvas, 30 ¼ by 40 ¼ inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Edith and Milton Lowenthal Collection, bequest of Edith Abrahamson Lowenthal.

Of Katahdin, Hartley wrote to his friend Helen Stein in October 1939: “I must get that Mt. for future reason of fame and success.”9 That his determination to claim the mountain for himself coalesced in 1939 must be attributed partly to his knowledge of and response to the centenary of Cézanne’s birth—January 19, 1839—an anniversary commemorated by a host of exhibitions, tributes, and publications. The centennial underscored Cézanne’s high place in France’s cultural pantheon by virtue of his artistic association with Aix-en-Provence’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, and, by claiming Maine’s geological equivalent as his own, Hartley aspired to comparable renown in American art.

Fig. 14. One of five sheets, collectively titled “High Spot,” House for Me on a Granite Ledge, c. 1940. Graphite on paper, 11 by 8 ½ inches. Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, Maine, Marsden Hartley Memorial Collection.

Around 1940 Hartley drew up plans for a modest two-story house, calling it “High Spot, House for Me on a Granite Ledge” (Fig. 14). The plans include two views of the living room, appointed with simple furnishings and maps of Maine. The most telling detail is the single rocking chair near the fireplace, which indicates that Hartley expected to live out his remaining years companionless. Poignantly expressing his yearning for security and belonging, while at the same time evoking their absences, Hartley’s unrealized plans for High Spot reflect the fact that he never entirely found a home in Maine, either physically or psychologically. Some of his final works—Lobster Fishermen’s Church by the Barrens (Fig. 15), for example—possess an elegiac tone, revisiting the themes of loss and abandonment that characterize so much of Hartley’s Maine.

Fig. 15. Lobster Fishermen’s Church by the Barrens, 1942. Oil on Masonite, 30 by 40 inches. Collection of Karen and Kevin Kennedy.

Though Hartley never realized his plans for High Spot, he did achieve recognition as a great American painter. In addition to positive reviews, awards, and the acquisition of his work by museums and private collectors, he signed a contract with the New York gallery recently opened by the renowned French dealer Paul Rosenberg and planned for a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Hartley died at the age of sixty-six in early September 1943, and MoMA’s show became a memorial exhibition the following year. One obituary read: “Hartley’s death did not come too soon to allow him satisfaction and realization. It was too soon for the world, for it terminated a still vigorous and clearly visioned painting career.”10

Marsden Hartley’s Maine is on view at the Met Breuer in New York City from March 15 to June 18 and at the Colby College Museum of Art from July 8 to November 12.

1 Hartley to Norma Berger, October 6, 1910, Marsden Hartley Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (hereafter Beinecke). 2 Marsden Hartley, “On the Subject of Nativeness—A Tribute to Maine,” in Marsden Hartley: Exhibition of Recent Paintings, 1936 (An American Place, New York, 1937), p. 5. Stieglitz had opened An American Place in 1929. 3 Hartley to Norma Berger, August 31, 1937, Beinecke. 4 Hartley to Adelaide Kuntz, n.d. (1937), Beinecke; also available on reel X4, Marsden Hartley Papers, Archives of American Art (hereafter AAA). 5 Hartley praised former Maine governor Percival Baxter who bought up land around Mount Katahdin “to stop match companies from ruining it.” Hartley to Helen Stein, September 10, 1939, Helen Stein Papers, reel 4130, AAA. Yet he gestured to these companies as well, designating Abundance “for the office of a lumber company in the north” when it was exhibited at the Hudson Walker Gallery in 1940. See Recent Paintings of Maine—Marsden Hartley (Hudson D. Walker Gallery, New York, March 11–10, 1940). 6 Katahdin was headline news in the summer preceding Hartley’s trip to the mountain due to the disappearance and dramatic recovery of twelve-year-old Donn Fendler, from Rye, New York. On Fendler’s harrowing saga and media coverage of it, see William Grimes, “Donn Fendler, Who Was Lost in Wilds of Maine as a Boy, Dies at 90,” New York Times, October 11, 2016. 7 Hartley to Helen Stein, September 29, 1939, Stein Papers, reel 4130, AAA. 8 Hartley owned prints by both artists (though which works he possessed are unknown), and, as he wrote in a letter, “I never tire of [Katahdin]—after all Hiroshige did 80 wood blocks of Fujiyama why can’t I do 80 Katahdins—and each time I do it I feel I am nearer the truth.” Hartley to Carl Sprinchorn, October 23, 1942, Elizabeth McCausland Papers, box 13, folder 10, AAA. 9 Hartley to Helen Stein, September 29, 1939, Stein Papers, reel 4130, AAA. 10 M[aude] R[iley],“Death Takes Hartley,” Art Digest, vol. 18 (October 1, 1943): p. 29.

DONNA M. CASSIDY is a professor of art history and American and New England studies at the University of Southern Maine and ELIZABETH FINCH is the Lunder Curator of American Art at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine. RANDALL R. GRIFFEY is a curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.