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Artists Marsden Hartley
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Marsden Hartley

American Painter and Writer

Movements and Styles: Dada, Post-Impressionism, Early American Modernism, Realism

Born: January 4, 1877 - Lewiston, Maine

Died: September 2, 1943 - Ellsworth, Maine

Marsden Hartley Timeline


"Nativeness is built of such primitive things, and whatever is one's natureness, one holds and never loses no matter how far afield the traveling may be."
Marsden Hartley
"My work embodies little visions of the great intangible... Some will say he's gone mad - others will look and say he's looked in at the lattices of Heaven and come back with the madness of splendor on him."
Marsden Hartley
"I could never be French - I could never become German - I shall always remain American - the essence which is in me is American mysticism just as Davies declared it when he saw those first landscapes."
Marsden Hartley
"I want to be life and not myself... just a wholesome supply of magnanimous life."
Marsden Hartley
"... My return to nature by way of looking at Alps all these months has turned me into something of an infant Alp myself."
Marsden Hartley
"Who would waste time thinking of the Italianism of Leonardo? The creative spirit is at home wherever the spirit finds breath to draw. It is neither national or international."
Marsden Hartley
"The inherent magic in the appearance of the world about me, engrossed and amazed me. No cloud or blossom or bird or human ever escaped me."
Marsden Hartley
"I want my work in both writing and painting to have that special coolness, for I am weary of emotional excitement in art, wary of episode, of legend and of special histories."
Marsden Hartley
"As a painter I have to have a mountain."
Marsden Hartley
"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

"It is never difficult to see images - when the principle image is embedded in the soul."

Marsden Hartley Signature


Marsden Hartley, one of the first American artists to paint in a completely abstract mode, was part of the circle of artists, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, and John Marin, who congregated around and were promoted by photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Hartley incorporated into his own paintings the abstract trends that he witnessed first - hand during his time among avant-garde artists in Europe during the 1910s. While his early abstract style met with resistance back in the States, Hartley, undeterred, continued to paint his more recognizable subject matter with the same vivid colors, sharp contrasts, simplified forms, and ambiguous space that he mastered early in his career. His landscape paintings, imbued with the spirit of 19th - century American Transcendentalism, as well as his later portraits, which convey a love for and the earnestness of his subjects, are a uniquely American version of modernism that continue to resonate among younger contemporary artists today.

Key Ideas

While initially known for his more radical abstractions, Hartley used formal devices, such as strong colors and simplified forms, to convey the weightiness and groundedness of his preferred subjects, whether landscape, portraits, or genre scenes, that created a tension with the two-dimensionality of the picture plane.
Unlike his colleagues, Hartley spent several extended periods of time away from the United States, living in various parts of Europe as well as Mexico. These experiences exposed him to a much wider swath of avant-garde activity than was available in the U.S. as well as extended encounters with unfamiliar landscapes. One of the results of his travel, however, was an isolation from his fellow artists, which Hartley both welcomed and lamented.
Not a traditionally religious man, Hartley was steeped in the spiritual ideas of 19th-century Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Additionally, he was drawn to Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism and was familiar with more esoteric traditions such as Theosophy. Hartley's own syncretic spirituality pervades many of his paintings, especially his landscapes.
While he rarely discussed his private relationships in public, many now surmise that Hartley had several homosexual relationships throughout his life. At various points, he commemorated these relationships - more subtly in his early painting and more overtly in his later paintings - making Hartley an important early touchstone for gay identity in the United States.

Most Important Art

Marsden Hartley Famous Art

Winter Chaos, Blizzard (1909)

The outline of tall brown tree trunks and evergreen branches are barely visible in the flurry of loose brushstrokes that comprise Hartley's Winter Chaos, Blizzard. The shades of blue, pink, and white dabs of color that fill the rest of the canvas show the winter storm that envelops the tree-lined mountain landscape.

This work provides an important example of the Impressionistic style in which Hartley rendered his early landscape scenes; and yet, as noted by historian Gail R. Scott, the approach is distinctly his own and more direct in both subject matter and color application than the "gentle atmospheric snow scenes" of other contemporaneous American artists painting in the Impressionist style. The painting also exhibits what would be a lifelong theme in his work, drawing inspiration from personal experiences with nature; here the rough, stormy winter he experienced in 1908-09 when he lived alone in North Lovell, Maine.

While Hartley quickly moved on from Impressionism, these works garnered him early attention. They were well received when shown in Boston in 1909 and led to dealers Maurice and Charles Prendergast connecting the artist to William Glackens and his group of like - minded artists in New York City with whom Hartley would begin creating early modernist works.
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Marsden Hartley Artworks in Focus:


Childhood and Education

Marsden Hartley, age seven
Marsden Hartley, age seven

Edmund Hartley was the youngest of nine children born to English immigrant parents Thomas and Eliza Jane Hartley. The death of his mother when he was eight years old affected him profoundly; many years later, Hartley explained, "I was to know complete isolation from that moment forward." His family was soon after divided, with Hartley forced to live with an older sister in Auburn, Maine. To assuage his loneliness, he found solace in the comforting embrace of nature, something he would cling to throughout his life. Hartley's love of the outdoors also led him to imbibe the writings of American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in addition to the poetry of Walt Whitman.

Despite having left school at fifteen to work in a shoe manufacturing factory, Hartley's art education began in 1893 after moving to Ohio to live with other siblings and his newly remarried father. He began taking lessons with local artists, and in 1898 he enrolled at the Cleveland School of Art. His skills attracted the attention of a school trustee who gave him a five-year stipend to study art in New York, which commenced in 1899. He studied with William Merritt Chase, and then spent four years at the National Academy of Design. It was during this time that Hartley also met the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, who would have a profound influence on Hartley's painting.

Early Training

In 1906 Hartley briefly returned to Lewiston, Maine to teach painting, and in an act of reinvention, he took his stepmother's maiden name as his own first name, becoming Marsden Hartley. From the earliest moments of his career, beginning with the summers spent between his years of study, travel was important. Inspiration from the landscape where he lived and the people he met would manifest itself thematically in the subjects of many of his works and he established a pattern of spending periods of time in near isolation in nature followed by stays in cities.

In 1909, Hartley met Alfred Stieglitz in New York City, a meeting that would have significant repercussions for his career. The two quickly became friends, and Stieglitz introduced him to a circle of artists, including Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Paul Strand, who were all exploring modern approaches to painting and photography. Stieglitz gave Hartley his first one - man show at the famed 291 Gallery in 1909.

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Marsden Hartley Biography Continues

Enjoying the company of other writers and artists that he met in New York, Hartley was often found sitting with them at Kriel's Bakery where he was allowed to eat for free by the sympathetic owner. Despite his lack of funds, Hartley paid attention to his appearance, which fellow artist Alfred Dreymborg noted, stating, "When spring came, if he could afford nothing else, Marsden managed to buy a gardenia for his buttonhole."

Marsden Hartley in costume for the Society Arts Ball in Paris, France, June 1913
Marsden Hartley in costume for the Society Arts Ball in Paris, France, June 1913

After a successful exhibition at 291 in 1912, Hartley set out for Europe and found artistic inspiration and comradery in Paris, where he met famed collector Gertrude Stein and visited her salon. While she purchased four of his works, he was most impressed by the paintings of other artists she owned, including those by Pablo Picasso. Hartley recalled of the Picassos, "they seemed to burn my head off - I felt indeed like a severed head living off itself by mystical evacuation."

It was also in Paris that he met German sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck and his cousin Karl von Freyburg, who was a lieutenant in the Prussian army. The two introduced Hartley to the work and writing of Wassily Kandinsky and the German expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, which would have profound influence on his art. Hartley quickly began creating works that embraced the expressionistic style of European modernism.

Hartley included his lover's, Karl von Freyburg's, initials in the famous <i>Painting No. 47</i> (1914 - 15)
Hartley included his lover's, Karl von Freyburg's, initials in the famous Painting No. 47 (1914 - 15)

In 1913 he visited Rönnebeck and von Freyburg in Berlin and soon moved there. Many scholars believe that Hartley soon developed a serious romantic relationship with von Freyburg. He became fascinated with the pageantry of the German military uniforms and parades. While German society adhered to strict mores about gender and sexuality, Berlin's bohemian society embraced sexual liberation, and it seems that Hartley in turn found himself at home there. He wrote to Stieglitz, "I have lived rather gayly in the Berlin fashion - with all that implies." Von Freyburg died in battle in October 1914, and Hartley honored his love with a symbolic portrait, Portrait of a German Officer (1914). He continued to paint pictures related to this painting, suggesting he felt the loss of his partner deeply. Fiercely private, little is known of Hartley's relationships. He had friendships with other gay men during his career, including the painter Charles Demuth and the poet Hart Crane but little is known of his romantic attachments.

Photograph of Marsden Hartley taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1916. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photograph of Marsden Hartley taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1916. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

World War I forced Hartley to return to America in 1915. Had he been able to stay in Germany where his modern style was being recognized and accepted, his early career might have fared better and developed more quickly; however, his most recent works shown after his return were not well received. The German-inspired themes made them a hard sell, given the anti-German sentiment of the time. Disheartened at being home, Hartley responded with long periods of travel, including a trip to Bermuda with Charles Demuth in 1917; stays in Maine; and two years in the southwest, including New Mexico and California, where he began a series of works focused on the landscape.

Mature Period

Upon returning to New York City in 1920 he was named first secretary of the Société Anonyme, founded by Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp. Here he also befriended Man Ray and briefly immersed himself in the Dada art and literary culture. Writing, which had long been an interest of his, resulted in the publication of Adventures in the Arts (1921), a collection of essays on artists and vaudeville performances. He would go on to publish other works including his autobiography Somehow a Past (1933).

Hartley painted landscapes in southern France an example of which is <i>Purple Mountains, Vence</i> (1926)
Hartley painted landscapes in southern France an example of which is Purple Mountains, Vence (1926)

The key years of Hartley's career were inspired by his numerous travels around Europe and the United States. He moved back to Berlin in November 1921 and began a series of still lifes he would return to periodically. In addition, the landscapes of Italy and France, where he moved in 1925 and lived for three years, are reflected in his paintings. The receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship, which funded a year of painting outside of the United States, enabled Hartley to travel to Mexico in 1932. Here he was inspired not only by nature but also the mysticism and spiritualism of the Mexican people.

Traveling alone suited the artist's solitary nature, and becoming part of organized institutions proved difficult for him. For instance, when he returned to New York in February 1934, he joined the federal government's Works Progress Administration, but he was not able to abide by the organization's regimented structure. His frequent travels also created a rift between the artist and Stieglitz who decided he would no longer pay for the storage of Hartley's works. In an angered response to this betrayal, the artist chose his fifty-eighth birthday to dramatically burn one hundred of his works to free himself of the financial burden.

Later Period

In Adelard the Drowned, Master of the 'Phantom' (1938 - 39) Hartley memorialized the young Nova Scotian fisherman who he had befriended and who drowned at sea
In Adelard the Drowned, Master of the 'Phantom' (1938 - 39) Hartley memorialized the young Nova Scotian fisherman who he had befriended and who drowned at sea

A major source of inspiration late in Hartley's career was a trip to Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia where he stayed with the Mason family. The landscape, the family dynamic, as well as the tragic death of the family's two sons and a cousin by drowning on September 19, 1936 would appear as themes in many of the artist's later works and marked the beginning of an increased focus on portraiture and still lifes. He would continue to develop these interests in 1941, when after years of travelling, Hartley returned to his home state of Maine. It was during this time that Hartley was able to make the long anticipated trip to Mount Katahdin and create a visual record of his journey.

Hartley in Maine (1941)
Hartley in Maine (1941)

Despite declining heath, Hartley painted voraciously in these last years in Maine. Of this period he stated, "My work is getting stronger and stronger and more intense all the time... I have such a rush of new energy and notions coming into my head, over my horizon like chariots of fire that all I want is freedom to step aside and execute them." In an ending, similar to much of his life, he died of heart failure quietly and alone.


Photograph of Marsden Hartley (1939)
Photograph of Marsden Hartley (1939)

Marsden Hartley played a key role in ushering in and shaping American modernism in the early-20th century. While he was not alone in this, his unique approach to subject matter, color, and brushstroke that differentiated him from his peers was largely a result of his heavy emersion in European modernism, which he emulated and used as the foundation for his own art. Over the years, Hartley's legacy has been uneven among scholars; first, in part, because of his subject matter of German themes and homosexual innuendo, and second because of the rise of and preference for Regionalism during the latter part of his life.

His reputation, though, gained momentum, and his paintings have influenced contemporary artists. This influence was on exhibit most recently in a 2015 show at New York City's Driscoll Babcock Galleries in which seven contemporary artists - Katherine Bradford, Jennifer Coates, Holly Coulis, Rachael Gorchov, David Humphrey, Danielle Orchard, and Robin F. Williams - who have acknowledged the influence of Hartley in their own work, were asked to create paintings in response to key works by the artist.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Marsden Hartley
Interactive chart with Marsden Hartley's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart


Paul CézannePaul Cézanne
Wassily KandinskyWassily Kandinsky
Franz MarcFranz Marc
Henri MatisseHenri Matisse
Albert Pinkham RyderAlbert Pinkham Ryder


Mabel Dodge LuhanMabel Dodge Luhan
Paul RosenbergPaul Rosenberg
Alfred StieglitzAlfred Stieglitz
Karl von Freyburg
Hudson Walker


Modernism and Modern ArtModernism and Modern Art
Marsden Hartley
Marsden Hartley
Years Worked: 1906 - 1943


Arthur B. DaviesArthur B. Davies
Charles DemuthCharles Demuth
John MarinJohn Marin
Arnold Rönnebeck


Mabel Dodge LuhanMabel Dodge Luhan
Paul RosenbergPaul Rosenberg
Alfred StieglitzAlfred Stieglitz
William Carlos WilliamsWilliam Carlos Williams
Hudson Walker


Modernism and Modern ArtModernism and Modern Art

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
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Useful Resources on Marsden Hartley





The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


Marsden Hartley Recomended resource

By Gail R. Scott

Marsden Hartley: The Biography of an American Artist

By Townsend Ludington

written by artist

Somehow a Past: The Autobiography of Marsden Hartley Recomended resource

By Marsden Hartley and Susan Elizabeth Ryan

The Collected Poems of Marsden Hartley, 1904 - 1943

By Marsden Hartley and Gail R. Scott

More Interesting Books about Marsden Hartley
John Wilmerding Symposium on American Art Part V: Marsden Hartley's Maine Recomended resource

This video presents a lecture by Randall Griffey, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, about the life and work of Marsden Hartley. The symposium took place at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. on October 22, 2016.

The Artist Project: David Salle on Marsden Hartley

Contemporary artist David Salle discusses the work of Marsden Hartley

"Marsden Hartley's Maine" at The Met Breuer

Randall Griffey, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of discusses the work of Marsden Hartley and the exhibition Marsden Hartley's Maine.

Hide/Seek: Marsden Hartley

By The National Portrait Gallery

More Interesting Videos with Marsden Hartley

in pop culture

7 Contemporary Takes on Marsden Hartley Recomended resource

February 20, 2015

Cleophas and His Own

This video is the trailer for the 2005 film Cleophas and His Own. A visual recreation of the narrative poem by Marsden Hartley, it is based on his own life experience staying with the Mason family on East Point Island, Nova Scotia in 1935. The film is from 217 Films and directed by Michael Maglaras.

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