Marsden Hartley was an artist known for his uniquely American style that combined spirituality, Cubism, and German Expressionism to create abstract work and landscapes, portraits and still lifes. He was also a poet and essayist inspired by the work of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Hartley was named Edmund when he was born in Lewiston, Maine. His mother died when he was eight and his father remarried four years later to Martha Marsden. Hartley would later adopt his stepmother’s name to reinvent himself as Marsden Hartley. He moved to Ohio in his teens and studied at the Cleveland School of Art on scholarship, and then left for New York for William Merritt Chase’s school and the National Academy of Design. A summer in Maine would expose him to popular conferences at the Green Acres retreat, dedicated to peace, world religions including Baha’i, and philosophy.
Hartley met Alfred Stieglitz and his first exhibition was at the photographer’s gallery in 1909. He traveled to Paris to study and there he attended Gertrude Stein’s influential salons and saw the work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso for the first time, becoming lifelong friends with Charles Demuth and other expats. He moved to Berlin in 1913 where he was influenced by Wassily Kandinsky’s art and Expressionism. Some of the paintings he created during this time were inspired by a Prussian officer he met who would later die during World War I. Hartley turned details of this man’s life such as his age, his medals, and his uniform into symbolic representations. When Hartley returned to America in 1915 his work was criticized due to his German symbolism and sympathies. In 1921 he headed back to Europe, having auctioned off over 100 works to finance his trip. Throughout his life he would live somewhere for a few years and then move, to Europe, Provincetown, Bermuda, Mexico, Taos, California, and more. During his time in Nova Scotia, Canada he became close to fishermen and their families, finding a sense of community there. The hardships they experienced profoundly affected him, his writing, and his artwork.
Hartley returned to his home state in 1937 wanting to be known as “the painter of Maine.“ He would remain there, moving from town to town, until his death in 1943. His work from this period includes paintings of athletic men, with little or no clothes, and landscapes and portraits of Maine. Hartley’s art is now often seen as representing the homosexual life he could not freely live.