The Maine Man: Marsden Hartley
As one of the most poignant eras in history, the period of the Great Depression harbored a dark and tumultuous sentiment that threatened to suffocate America’s newfound sense of identity. During the 1930s, the market crash acted as the catalyst that brought about a resurgence of American regionalism; the smarting memory of Black Tuesday left many weary of the invisible perils brought about by modernism. With nothing to do but wait for the economy to stabilize, an obsession with rebuilding the broken American image began to sweep across the country. Attempts at re-branding the American identity can be seen in the works of regionalist artists such as Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Grant Wood (1891-1942), and John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), who embraced the folkloric tradition and natural landscapes of the Midwest.
With the Midwest already tended to, the promotion of the New England coast fell into the hands of New England native Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). As a modernist painter who began his career at the turn of the century, Hartley’s work caught the eye of Alfred Stieglitz, who allowed the budding artist entry into his Manhattan circle of avant-garde acquaintances. Shortly after 1910, Hartley decided to make the requisite tour aboad to widen his aesthetic horizons, and his encounter with the works of Paul Cézanne, August Rodin, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso would go on to greatly influence his artistic style. Just before the market crashed, Hartley encountered the unfortunate happenstance of falling out of favor with his European cohorts, and his stateside return in 1930 could not have happened at a worse time: After living abroad for nine years, Hartley and his work arrived back in America, and the artist was met with a frigid reception from anti-European critics.
Determined to re-establish his career in America, Hartley affixed himself with the regionalist movement around 1937, declaring that he wished to be known as “the painter from Maine.” Hartley had originally left his hometown of Lewiston, Maine to widen his aesthetic vision abroad, but when the enticing notion of returning to his New England roots presented itself, he went. For anyone else, a stylistic reinvention at the age of sixty could be considered as too little, too late, but Hartley’s coastal scenes and landscapes produced in Maine effectively proved that he had just reached the culmination of his career.
“…it has been such a joy to come home to my native heath and feel so content here and now I am completely in the thing… these are by big years… Life not only begins but doubles at 60 – and such an onrush of fresh energy fairly surrounds me.”
Hartley spent the last years of his life working in Maine, where he synthesized the comforting sense of familiarity with the mysticism of the surrounding bays and rocky beaches. The Marsden Hartley paintings which feature the wooded coasts of Penobscot Bay, found just off the coast of Vinalhaven, Maine, incorporate a variety of aspects stemming from Hartley’s wide range of experimentation with different genres of art: Cubism, German Expressionism, American Realism, and even a fusion of the personal styles of Winslow Homer and Albert Ryder.
As one of the first modern artists in America, the paintings of Marsden Hartley segued American art away from the formal ideals of Realism, and into the modern realm of abstract art. Today numerous Marsden Hartley paintings can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
 Townsend Ludington, Seeking the Spiritual: The Painting of Marsden Hartley exh. cat. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998), 70.
Leave a Reply