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Marsden Hartley

Born: 1877, Lewiston, Maine, United States of America
Died: 1943, Ellsworth, Maine, United States of America
Gender: Male

Biography

Pioneering modernist painter Marsden Hartley created robust, boldly executed landscapes, still lifes, figural images, and abstract compositions that express both strength and yearning vulnerability. Born in Lewiston, Maine, Hartley was raised by a succession of relatives after the death of his mother. Poverty forced him to leave school at the age of fifteen to work in a shoe factory office. Hartley studied art in Cleveland briefly before moving to New York City; he enrolled in the New York School of Art but soon transferred to the National Academy of Design. Hartley’s early, expressive Maine landscapes won the admiration of the pioneering gallery director and photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), and his career was launched when Stieglitz, who would remain his friend and supporter for three decades, began to show Hartley’s work at his New York gallery known as 291; there, Hartley encountered the work of European modernist painters.

With Stieglitz’s support, Hartley traveled to Paris in 1912 and then moved to Berlin, where he was entranced both by the energy and militaristic glamour of the imperial capital on the eve of World War One and by the liberated spirit of Berlin’s gay subculture. He joined the avant-garde art group known as the Blue Rider and was deeply influenced by the art and writings of Russian modernist artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), who advocated an art that expressed inner spirituality. Hartley painted abstract assemblages of familiar and cryptic symbolic forms that combined elements of cubism, in which ordinary objects are presented as fragmented into series of component two-dimensional forms, and of expressionism, the use of color and form to express subjective emotional and spiritual experience. In 1915, war forced Hartley to return to the United States, where he experimented with pure, cubist-inspired abstraction and also turned toward painting still lifes and landscapes inspired by a visit to New Mexico. Hartley launched his career as a prolific writer of essays, criticism, and poetry while working in locations as diverse as Maine, Bermuda, and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Hartley returned to Europe in 1921. Ever restless, he moved between France, Italy, Germany, Mexico, and the American northeast as he sought not only spiritual solace and artistic inspiration but a sense of belonging. His work ranged from boldly executed still lifes and mountain landscapes to symbolist visions inspired by deep personal emotion and his study of mysticism. He was especially drawn to the rugged landscapes of Germany’s Bavarian Alps and to the mountains and coasts of Nova Scotia, Massachusetts, and his native Maine. Near the end of his life, the human figure assumed greater importance in his work: he painted forceful, iconic images of circus performers, fishermen, historical figures, and nude models heavily painted with dark outlines, strong color, and a deliberate naivete that echoes popular imagery and folk art. Always beset by financial insecurity, Hartley realized a modest financial as well as critical success in his last years; he died of heart problems in Maine just before the opening of his retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
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