Veined with deep purple and blue, the Maine highlands painted by Marsden Hartley in 1908 are less evocative of New England than of some view of Mont Salève by the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler. The first wall of paintings greeting the visitor in this exhibition of Hartley’s Maine-centred work, in other words, suggests anything but American regionalism and its often quaintly provincial associations. Already in the first decade of the last century, Hartley had absorbed the chromatic and compositional lessons of symbolism and postimpressionism, even seemingly anticipating abstract painting in a few notable instances around 1908–09. (See, for example, his Landscape No. 36.) Yet for his 1932 solo exhibition, Hartley chose the title ‘Pictures of New England by a New Englander’, cementing his affinities with his native state. Born in Lewiston, Maine, Hartley trained in Cleveland and New York before extended periods in Paris and Berlin, where he further assimilated various avant-garde strategies. Though he would spend time in Maine periodically, it was only after 1937 that Hartley settled there, vowing to become its most representative painter.
The vernacular wood frame of his Church at Head Tide (1938) exemplifies this concentration upon local forms: the black outlines surrounding the structure – increasingly prevalent in Hartley’s work after the early 1930s – metaphorize this inward turning. The same heavy lines characterize his rafts and piles of logs, an unmistakable testament to the state’s lumber-based economy. Artists of Hartley’s stature most often trace a different career arc, moving from insular origins to a more cosmopolitan outlook. The exhibition thus raises the vital question of how to approach – or how to situate – a body of work shot through with paradoxical strains and orientations. What makes a painter American? What makes an American painter something other than a regional painter?
A series of striking drawings of woodcutters line a wall of the first gallery. Their labour sends Hartley’s pencil into a frenzy of strokes and lashes, seemingly anticipating futurist aesthetics. Yet it is a quiet, noble hieraticism that most often distinguishes the painter’s aesthetic. Already in the early Maine mountain scenes we find not simply the diaphanous shimmer of postimpressionist brushwork, but a chunky, weighty corpulence – a quality that would come to characterize the gamut of Hartley’s imagery, from the bodies of Maine fishermen to even the cumulous clouds of his landscapes. In his 1939 Birds of the Bagaduce, the sky occupies the bulk of the canvas, a backdrop to clouds at once fleshy and nearly abstract. Falling outside the show’s scope is the work completed by Hartley in New York City and Europe, wherein he adapted cubist, expressionist, and abstract tendencies to a range of far-flung subject matter, from the landscapes of New Mexico to France.
Still, those experiments echo to the far reaches of Hartley’s career, as when in 1927 he undertook to paint Mont Saint Victoire – that favourite subject of Paul Cézanne – in fauvist hues and brushwork that imitates nothing of the master of Aix. But it was Maine’s highest peak, Mt Katahdin, that Hartley aimed to make his own, and the exhibition includes a good sampling of those efforts. Per common practice at the Met Breuer, works by artists who influenced Hartley, including Albert Pinkham Ryder and Winslow Homer, hang alongside his own. The placement of Cézanne’s Large Bathers (1896-98) lithograph in a room of landscapes seems a rather puzzling choice, given his plain impact upon Hartley’s painted bodies (to which an entire room is dedicated). Those figures’ ethnic particularities – especially the métis Adonis of his Madawaska: Acadian Light-Heavy (1940) – gainsays Hartley’s ostensible affinities for Aryan racial purity, as noted by Randall R. Griffey in his catalogue essay. If the politics of Hartley’s homoeroticism – by turns tortured and tender – have found deft treatment in the work of Jonathan Weinberg and other scholars, the racial nuances of Hartley’s oeuvre await some further critical assessment.
Main Image: Marsden Hartley, Lobster on Black Background (detail), 1940–41, oil on hardboard (masonite), 55 x 71 cm. Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. and The Met Breuer, New York