”My own education [began] in my native hills, going with me—these hills wherever I went, looking never more wonderful than they did to me in Paris, Berlin, or Provence.—Marsden Hartley, “On the Subject of Nativeness—A Tribute to Maine,” 1937
American painter and poet Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) was born and died in Maine, and his personal and aesthetic engagement with the state shaped his art. Hartley embarked on his artistic career in the early 1900s by painting the western Maine mountains, eventually becoming a member of the circle of artists promoted by the gallerist and photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Beginning in 1912, he adopted a peripatetic life, traveling throughout Europe and North America and returning to his native state on short, infrequent trips. While living in Berlin from 1913 to 1915, Hartley produced abstract paintings that placed him at the forefront of the international artistic avant-garde. Eventually his itinerant lifestyle took an emotional toll. At midlife he confided to Stieglitz, “I want so earnestly a ‘place’ to be.” Hartley repatriated to his native state in his later years and, in 1937, began transforming his identity from urbane sophisticate to “the painter from Maine.”
This exhibition examines Maine as place and the place of Maine in Hartley’s art. It illuminates the artist’s wide-ranging representations of the state throughout his career, from early lush, Post-Impressionist mountain landscapes to glass paintings done at the Ogunquit art colony to canvases painted from memory while abroad to late, roughly rendered images of the rugged coastline, magisterial Mount Katahdin, and hardy people. It also includes works from The Met collection by other artists who shaped Hartley’s vision. Maine served as a slate on which Hartley manifested his ideas over time. It was an enduring source of inspiration defined by his personal history, cultural milieu, and desire to create a regional expression of American modernism.
The exhibition is made possible by the Barrie A. and Deedee Wigmore Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, and the Jane and Robert Carroll Fund.
Hartley was born in 1877 in Lewiston, Maine, a center of the state’s powerful textile industry. His English immigrant parents, who were drawn to the area by the mills, named their son Edmund. When Hartley was eight his mother died; he later attributed his lifelong loneliness to this early loss. His father remarried, and the family resettled in Ohio, where Hartley studied at the Cleveland School of Art until a local patron offered him a stipend to continue his training in New York. A teacher gave the aspiring artist a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson, igniting the interest in Transcendentalism that would contribute to the expressive tenor of his early landscapes.
In the spring of 1900, Hartley returned to Maine in search of inspiration. The state’s western border with New Hampshire, where the White Mountains preside, became the first place he claimed for his art. Over the next decade he moved between New York, Boston, and the cluster of small towns near the village of Lovell, Maine, establishing the itinerancy that would shape his life. Intimations of Hartley’s homosexuality entered his letters, and literature, especially the poems of Walt Whitman, provided an anchor for his emerging artistic identity. In 1906 Hartley changed his first name to Marsden, his stepmother’s surname. During these exploratory years he focused on Maine’s dramatic western mountains and the locale’s rural culture. His longest stay in the region, from 1908 to 1909, generated an extraordinary group of paintings and drawings. Returning to New York, Hartley secured the exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291, that launched his career.