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Marsden Hartley's Maine

Published on
April 27

Currently on view at the Met Breuer, Marsden Hartley’s Maine explores the paintings and drawings of the artist’s home state of Maine. Throughout his prolific career during the first half of the 20th century, Hartley was known for being part of Alfred Stieglitz’s modernist circle in New York City, as well as actively engaging with the European avant-garde. Despite his success in metropolitan artistic circles, Hartley continuously returned to his roots in New England, repeatedly painting landscapes featuring the iconic Mount Katahdin, working class figures such as lobstermen, and eventually spending the end of his life in Ellsworth, Maine.

Maine was a recurring subject in Hartley’s work, providing his modern day audience with a view into his stylistic development as an artist, not to mention his wide-ranging expressive capabilities. The exhibition successfully captures a sort of evolution in the artist’s work, from his early, Cezanne-inspired landscapes to his later, more “primitive” style paintings, inspired by folk art and the lifestyle of small-town coastal Maine.  Early paintings, which are featured at the beginning of the exhibition, reflect the post-Impressionist themes prevalent in his earlier work. Hartley’s 1909 painting Landscape No. 25, which was displayed at his debut at Stieglitz’s “291” gallery, depicts a mountain landscape; rejecting naturalism, Hartley uses post-Impressionist techniques such as quick, visible brushstrokes and large swathes of simplified colors to create the impression of changing seasons.

Marsden Hartley, Landscape No. 25, 1908-9. Oil on commercially prepared paperboard. 
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As one progresses through the galleries, it becomes clear that Hartley was anything but static. Known for being a restless artist, Hartley’s style was constantly developing. Hartley’s later paintings seem almost to be a moody rejection of his avant-garde contemporaries, an ideological and artistic retreat to a simpler way of life. His later works, such as Mt. Katahdin (Maine), Autumn #2, completed in 1940, feature bold, flattened forms that are somewhat ominous in nature. The deep blue of the sky and ocean, in contrast with the flat black form of the mountain and dark red middle-ground, produces an arresting image that visually forges a place for itself within the context of American folk art, despite the fact that Hartley was formally trained.

Similarly, his figural paintings, such as Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine from 1941, idealize the unrefined, stolid ruggedness of the working class male figure. Hartley was clearly taken by the work of self-taught artists, a modernist style that was considered distinctly American at the time. While Hartley’s mature work does recall an American folk art aesthetic, it is equally as hard not to think of Gauguin when looking at one of these later works, due to the bold, flatly expressive swathes of color that characterize these paintings. By fusing together various artistic styles, Hartley created a distinct space for himself within the tradition of American modernism that is extraordinarily recognizable.

Marsden Hartley, Mt. Katahdin (Maine), Autumn #2, 1939-40, Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Along with the European avant-garde, the exhibition attempts to align Hartley with artists such as Japanese printmakers Hokusai and Hiroshige, as well as the canonical American painter Winslow Homer, whose works are also included in the exhibition. While Hartley’s practice is inherently international in terms of influence, Marsden Hartley’s Maine makes it clear that, as an artist, Hartley was deeply rooted in his home state, in an ongoing affair with the forces of nature. Maine acted as a creative springboard for Hartley; the place where his practice began and where he would return at the end of his life. If his artistic style underwent changes throughout his career, the landscapes and figures that he encountered in Maine did not, supplying endless inspiration and material.