Marsden Hartley: The Prodigal Son Goes Home Again
"My name will register forever in the history of American art."
By Bobbie Leigh
In his poem “Return of the Native” Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), after years of wandering declared himself “the painter from Maine.” In the late 1930s, after decades of travels in the United States and Europe returning to Maine intermittently, Hartley goes home and stays there.
Back home, he celebrates a range of Maine subjects: the craggy coastline, dense forests, and the dramatic silhouette of Mt. Katahdin. His paintings of local workmen —lobstermen, loggers, hunters, lumberjacks, super-athletes — the latter all great hulks – create what writer Hilton Kramer called “the boldest paintings of male figures in the history of American art.”
It’s hard to disagree. The chronologically organized exhibition, Marsden Hartley’s Maine, on view at The Met Breuer through June 18 showcases some 90 paintings and drawings from Hartley’s early Modernist landscapes—brooding and dark — to the powerful expressionist paintings made just years before his death.
The exhibition opens with a wall-sized video of crashing surf against a rocky shore. Immediately, you are transported to Maine as Hartley experienced it. “I have always said that you do not see a thing until you look away from it,” this prolific poet-painter wrote. “What has been retained in the mind’s eye is what lives. I have seldom or never worked from nature for this reason and so what I see is what I believe to be true…” And what we see are non-realistic, conceptual, highly vivid paintings with vibrating colors, everyday images of the land and the local people who lived there.
Hartley’s better-known paintings, which he called “War Motifs” (1914-1915), are not in this show but his admiration for Aryan culture remained throughout his life. While visiting Paris in 1914 Hartley fell in love with a Prussian officer who was later killed in the war. His tribute to his dead lover, an abstract portrait, collaged with military symbols and perhaps his best known work, is in the Met’s permanent collection.
Along with paintings of iconic Maine scenes – dark wet woods, Mount Katahdin, evening storms, desolate landscapes, the gallery devoted to muscular, hyper-masculine athletes and local working men reveal the artist at the height of his career. They reflect Hartley’s conception of what he called a vital “Yankee race.”
Audacious for their time, the late 1930s and early 1940s, when first exhibited, they were especially brave as Hartley never identified himself as homosexual. “Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine” depicts a deeply tanned lone male figure with an oversized body wearing a brief pink bikini, silhouetted against a blue sky with puffy white clouds. Hartley tends to disregard natural proportion with these iconic figures, often painting immense shoulders, forearms, and tiny heads.
Other highlights are paintings of lobstermen sitting on a dock and a trio of young men “Down East Young Blades.” The central figure wears an Alpine hat and a Bavarian boiled-wool jacket along with typical jeans and yellow fishermen’s boots. Curator Randall Griffey writes in the catalog that these late Maine paintings “pulsate with a vibrant, audacious directness that reflects authentic expression and deep connection to his subject.”
A year before his death in 1943, Hartley painted one of his most mystical, elegiac paintings “Lobster Fishermen’s Church by the Barrens.” The abandoned church may well reflect how he felt about his own career –in declining health, pressed for funds and forsaken by the art world.
In a letter to his sister at the end of his life, Hartley wrote: “I am not a ‘book of the month’ artist, and I do not paint pretty pictures, but when I am no longer here my name will register forever in the history of American art.”
After a visit to The Met Breuer, we have to agree with this immensely gifted American modernist painter.
Marsden Hartley’s Maine at The Met Breuer, through June 18.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.