Contributed by Sharon Butler / In the New York art community of the early 1900s, Marsden Hartley (born Lewiston, Maine 1877; died 1943 Ellsworth, Maine) found success elusive, and discovered, as almost all artists do, that developing a unique voice was a challenging proposition. He worked in New York, spent several years traveling to Europe, New Mexico, and Nova Scotia (solo exhibitions have been mounted for each of these periods), and then, at the urging of his New York dealer Alfred Stieglitz, eventually returned to his home state of Maine, where he had lived until he was twelve and would spend the last six years of his life. In forsaking the art community and an urban milieu — which had certainly yielded some fine work, if not commensurate recognition — for a rootsy regionalism, he hoped to develop a distinctive version of American Modernism. And so he did. Hartley’s paintings, on view in “Marsden Hartley’s Maine” at The Met Breuer, reveal a solitary yet ambitious artist deeply engaged in the painting life and committed to exploring the essence of America.
As generous text on the show’s wall panels reveals, considerable career calculation went into Hartley’s return to his home state. He embraced the hardship of wilderness, undertaking at age 60 a four-mile trek by foot to Mount Katahdin — which for him, like Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, became singularly iconic — in heavy rain. He strategically declared himself “the painter of Maine,” but Hartley’s influences were clear. He drew freely and openly from Paul Cezanne, the Impressionists (particularly the broken brushstrokes), Japanese printmakers Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, Winslow Homer, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, all of whose work from the Met’s collection is included in the exhibition. Cezanne, Hiroshige, and Hokusai’s preoccupation with mountains in the landscape, Homer’s fixation on Maine’s rocky coast, and Ryder’s evocative depictions of clouds as objects are all manifest in Hartley’s Maine paintings.
Alongside Hartley’s careful calibrations, there is also some notable candor. In more cryptic, abstract paintings than the ones painted in Maine, he had memorialized the young Prussian lieutenant Karl von Freyburg in Germany, with whom he was in love and who would die in World War I. His Maine figurative paintings and drawings depict brawny loggers and men in swimsuits, reflecting what to a contemporary eye is clearly homoeroticism, though apparently it was not construed as such when Hartley made the paintings. Taken in biographical context, the Maine paintings indicate a forlorn, insular dimension of Hartley’s personality. The sense of loneliness in the Maine paintings is palpable.
Hartley was an artistic survivor, and, as this remarkable show proves, a resourceful and ambitious one. Could “Marsden Hartley’s Maine” constitute a general recommendation for young artists to return to their geographic roots? Perhaps so. It certainly worked for Hartley.
“Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” co-curated by Randall Griffey, Elizabeth Finch, and Donna M. Cassidy.The Met Breuer, UES, New York, NY. Through June 18th, 2017. Co-organized with the Colby College Museum of Art, where the exhibition will be featured from July 8 through November 12, 2017.