Seeking The Spiritual

The Paintings of Marsden Hartley

by Townsend Ludington,

Cornell University Press 1998, pp. 80.


"...The earth is all I know of wonder."

- Marsden Hartley

Musical Theme (Oriental Symphony)

"Musical Theme (Oriental Symphony)," 1913, by Marsden Hartley,

Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.,

Gift of Mr. Samuel Lustgarten, Sherman Oaks, Calif.

by Carter B. Horsley

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) is widely recognized as one of America's greatest artists in the 20th Century because of his bold compositions that stopped short of abstraction, but rarely drama.

Like many artists, he was inconsistent and not all of his oeuvre is successful. To his great credit, however, he persevered with different themes and his intensity never wavered.

This book, which accompanied a delightful exhibition, organized by the Ackland Art Museum of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the Babcock Gallery at 724 Fifth Avenue that ended June 10, 1998, analyses his career and emphasizes his quite remarkably spirituality, as the title implies. The exhibition was curated by Barbara Matilsky, curator of exhibitions at the Ackland Art Museum, and Lisa Skrabek, assistant director of the Babcock Galleries.

His most important masterpieces consisted of a series of large paintings of close-ups of a World War I German soldier's uniform, full of medals. These vibrant works were resonant with strong colors and their scale mirrored the macro visions of Georgia O'Keefe, albeit with different subject matter. Landscapes also comprised a major part of Hartley's oeuvre and they are usually very powerful explosions of oversimplification with rich color applied with considerable painterliness.

This fine small exhibition and its book, however, make clear that Hartley was absorbed with many other themes and had a deep spiritual side.

His landscapes, wrote Ludington, were attempts "to convey his sense of the wonder of earth, at the same time attempting to articulate his awareness of the spiritual that came to him in the 'magic of dreams' and was filtered through his abundant imagination." "He struggled to comprehend and express creatively the tensions he perceived between the self and the spiritual work, between imagination, intellect, and nature as he understood them. Eventually he found settings that allowed him to immerse himself in what he called 'the mysticism of nature.' I these settings, influenced by all that he had read, he was compelled to create art from adversity and from the harshness and stolidness he felt to be inherent in the world. Forged from disparate elements, his work embodied modernism, making Hartley a significant representative of that major moment/movement in American sculpture," Ludington observed.

Self-taught and "remarkably learned," Hartley, Ludington continued, became "enamoured of the transcendentalists; Emerson, Thoreau, and soon after Whitman were his gods, even as he struggled with a severe case of New England Puritanism, which ran counter to his philosophical bent as well as to his homosexuality." Hartley had an exhibition at the Rowland Gallery in Boston in 1908 and came to the attention of artists Maurice and Charles Prendergast who wrote letters of introduction for Hartley to meet artists Robert Henri and William Glackens in New York. Glackens introduced Hartley to his Ash-Can School fellow artists and the next year Hartley met Alfred Stieglitz, whose 291 Gallery would become the epicenter of modern art in America and Hartley one of the thoroughbreds in its stable. With help from Stieglitz, Hartley went to Europe in 1912 and stayed for several years in Berlin where, Ludington notes, "he delved into Wassily Kandinsky's 'On the Spiritual in Art,' the works of Henri Bergson, and translations of the mystics Boehme, Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, and Ruysbroeck, to name but several of the writers whose ideas were helping to shape his thinking."

Hartley came to admire George Santayana, the philosopher, who had written about distinguishing "the edge of truth from the might of the imagination." Hartley, concerned about the egocentricity of artists, would soon write that he felt he had risen above "the worst defects" of the artistic "psychology": "After all what is visible is all we can seem to know and the rest is left to romanticism & to ecstasy."

He would find solace in the rocks and mountains of Maine and Nova Scotia and be fascinated with Mexico, and the landscape of Dogtown near Gloucester, Mass., but in the middle of the Depression he destroyed more than 100 of his paintings because he could not pay storage for them.

Among the fine paintings in the exhibition were "Autumnal Impressional," a bluish mountainscape in the collection of The Vault Art Trust in Boston that he executed in the "stitch" style he learned from studying reproductions of Swiss artist Giovanni Segantini, "Indian Fantasy," a 1914 work now in the collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh that is a dense, rich work of abstracted Indians, canoes and a teepee in a very strong and colorful composition, "The Iron Cross," a 1915 work in the collection of the Washington University Gallery of Art in St. Louis, "Movement No. 3, Provincetown," a fine Cubist-style work of simplicity and a subtle palette, "New Mexico Landscape," a 1919 work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, that is extremely dynamic and a surprisingly sharp vision of the desert landscape, "Smelt Brook Falls," a 1937 work from the Saint Louis Art Museum, that is a dark but exciting composition in reddish browns, white and black that is particularly strong, "Mt. Katahdin," a very fine landscape in the Schrag Family Collection that is very painterly and impressive.

Still Life (With Garlic)

There were also several striking still lifes, such as "Still Life (With Garlic)," shown above, a 1929 work, and some unusual paintings that are difficult to easily like but extremely interesting such as "Morgenrot," a 1932 work in which Hartley depicts a very large red hand that is a representation of a mystical illumination of German mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-1624). This and another painting in the show at the Babcock Gallery, "Transference of Richard Rolle," were part of a series that the painter entitled "Murals for an Arcane Library." "These paintings, done under the duress of the alien environment of Mexico, remain among Hartley's least appreciated masterworks. Exhibited as a group in Mexico City in 1933, they coalesced much of what had gone before and are Hartley's most directly symbolic paintings since creation of the German Officer series. Here, however, a more mature painter, increasingly aware of his own mortality, seeks to express the iconic spirituality of his experience," Ludington wrote.

Perhaps the finest painting in the exhibition is "Musical Theme (Oriental Symphony)," a work, shown at the top of this article, finished in 1913 and in the collection of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., gift of Mr. Samuel Lustgarten of Sherman Oaks, Calif. In Paris, Hartley was influenced by Picasso and the German Expressionist artists centered in Munich and composer Arnold Schonberg. In a letter to artist Rockwell Kent, Hartley wrote of his "Musical Theme" paintings that "They look like a conclave of universal elements confiding in one another - things that look like stars - birds' wings - sun rays - suns themselves at sundown time - moon shapes and star beams all radiant together." "It is a kind of cosmic dictation applied aesthetically to produce a harmony of shapes & colors - with a sense also of the color of sound as I get these feelings out of music," Hartley continued. Ludington noted that in this painting Hartley, "although the shapes in the painting are clearly delineated in a way that became a signature of Hartley's work, he applied his oils thinly so that each shape would not blare out but work in harmony with the others." "Musical staffs, clefs, eight-pointed stars, hieroglyphic marks, a sitting Buddha, and three hands signifying the Indian sign 'have no fear'" Ludington continued, "combine as an example of what he termed 'intuitive abstractions,' his own 'cosmic cubism.'" The painting is a marvel and it is surprising that Hartley did not pursue its themes even more as they seem to offer infinite possibilities.

Hartley became the logical successor to Albert Pinkham Ryder, the very great American poetic painter of the late 19th Century most known for his moonlit marine paintings that he often reworked and which are often in terrible condition.

Although Hartley's first show at Stieglitz's gallery was not a financial success, Hartley soon thereafter saw a show of Ryder's work at the N. E. Montross Gallery. In her catalogue of a 1980 Hartley exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Barbara Haskell noted that Hartley sought out Ryder in his 15th Street studio and was "profoundly affected" by his work. "What Ryder provided Hartley with was a model for uniting mystical and romantic qualities with an expressive realism which employed the rhythmic patterning and dark palette Hartley had evolved in his 1906-7 Impressionist landscapes. The austere mood of Ryder's work was equally appealing, for it corresponded to Hartley's feelings of loneliness and isolation," Haskell wrote.

Hartley's memorable intensity is evident in most of his work. His German Officer and Musical Theme paintings alone justify his high ranking in the annals of American paintings, but as this show and book demonstrate he had many depths and obsessions and inspirations. Despite the occasionally clumsy or unsatisfying work, one is always eager to see another one because of his forcefulness and his talent and his searching interests. His paintings are declarative rather than evocative. They do not appear spiritual, merely strong.

Another Hartley exhibition consists of works from the Ione and Hudson D. Walker collection at the University of Minnesota that was at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine in the spring of 1998 and will be at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, N.Y., from May 23 to July 25, 1999.

See an illustration of one of Hartley's great German military paintings in The City Review's article on "The American Century, Part I" exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art

See another illustration of a Hartley painting in The City Review's article on the Fall 1999 American Paintings auction at Christie's

See another illustration of a Hartley painting in The City Review's article on Spring 1998 American Paintings Auctions


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