Marsden Hartley | Searching for the Sublime


New Mexico Landscape [1919], oil, 181⁄4 x 241⁄4., painting, southwest art.
New Mexico Landscape [1919], oil, 181⁄4 x 241⁄4.

By Stephen May

Marsden Hartley, perhaps the most enduring of the early American Modernist painters, created some of his most interesting work during sojourns in New Mexico (1918-19) and Mexico (1932). A restless New Englander who roamed the world in search of subjects and styles, he found the bright light, desert landscape, unusual topography, and vast vistas of the Southwest and Mexico both challenging and frustrating as he sought to apply an avant-garde vocabulary to regional subjects.

The significant niche Hartley’s New Mexico and Mexico paintings occupy in his diverse career is evident in Marsden Hartley: American Modern, an exhibition now on national tour. Restlessly exploring the U.S. and Europe, Hartley for a time thought he had found his ideal subject matter in the Southwest; later, for a brief period, Mexico appeared to offer the answer.

Eight Bells Folly: Memorial to Hart Crane [1933], oil, 305⁄8 x 393⁄8., painting, southwest art.
Eight Bells Folly: Memorial to Hart Crane [1933], oil, 305⁄8 x 393⁄8.

Hartley’s route to the Southwest was a bumpy, circuitous one. Born in Maine, he had a difficult childhood; his mother died when he was 8, and he was raised for a few years by an older sister after his father remarried and moved away. “I lived,” Hartley later recalled, “an entirely imaginative life of my own.”

A lonely, insecure youngster, he dropped out of school to work, but after rejoining his father in Cleveland he found his calling while attending art classes. Spending his summers in Maine, Hartley painted landscapes, especially of mountains, and by 1909 had his first exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s famous 291 Gallery in New York. Joining artists Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Georgia O’Keeffe in the Stieglitz circle and being exposed to works by European Modernists such as Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso prompted him to undertake a variety of artistic experiments.

Alfred Stieglitz, Portrait of Marsden Hartley [c. 1913-15], platinum print. southwest art.
Alfred Stieglitz, Portrait of Marsden Hartley [c. 1913-15], platinum print.

His search for aesthetic inspiration continued during the three and a half years he spent in Europe (1912-16). In Paris he experimented with Cezanne-like still lifes, dabbled in mystical art and writing, and was encouraged by expatriate patron Gertrude Stein, who welcomed him into her salon of progressive creative types and purchased his work.

Hartley continued to sort through various artistic challenges when he moved in 1913 to Berlin, a city he loved for its modernity, orderliness, and cleanliness. He delighted in the military pomp and pageantry of imperial Germany and—in the context of Berlin’s relaxed attitude toward homosexuality—developed an intimate friendship with a handsome young Prussian officer, who was later killed in World War I.

After being encouraged by Stieglitz to explore American subjects, Hartley began to trade on his native origins in a series of paintings based on American Indian objects and designs. Drawing on knowledge gained during his visits to Indian collections in museums in New York and Berlin as well as his study of historic Pueblo pottery in Paris, he wove Native American artifacts and symbols into flat, primitive patterns while employing large curves and triangles reminiscent of his Berlin military pictures.

Santos, New Mexico [1918-19], oil, 313⁄4 x 233⁄4., painting, southwest art.
Santos, New Mexico [1918-19], oil, 313⁄4 x 233⁄4.

With the outbreak of war, however, Hartley abandoned his Indian paintings. Before long, food shortages and America’s impending involvement in the conflict forced him to return to the U.S. Faced with anti-German sentiment in the States, Hartley sought new subjects to revive his reputation in his homeland. He bounced around New England, New York, and Bermuda, always short of funds and constantly trying out new styles and subjects.

In 1918, Hartley eagerly accepted an invitation to New Mexico from Mabel Dodge Luhan. He felt that the state offered a chance for a fresh start and inexpensive living in a new setting. “I am,” he declared, “an American discovering America.” In May he traveled by train to Santa Fe, where he was met by Dodge and her painter-husband Maurice Sterne. He rented a small, three-room adobe house near Taos’ central plaza for $10 a month and used a room in Dodge’s enclave as a studio.

By this time the Taos school of artists—Oscar Berninghaus, Ernest Blumenschein, Bert Phillips, Joseph Sharp, and company—were busily engaged in recording the exotic scenery and picturesque Indian life of the area. Hartley, whose work was little known to these painters, remained aloof from the group, which he derided as “awful hackers” and “cheap artists.” Criticizing the narrow focus of their work, he said they had “the smallest vision I have [seen] of the world so far.”

Still Life [1912], oil, 323⁄16 x 2513⁄16., painting, southwest art.
Still Life [1912], oil, 323⁄16 x 2513⁄16.

The moody man from Maine was, nonetheless, dazzled by the endless vistas and colorful landscape he encountered in New Mexico and captivated by the traditional Pueblo life of the area’s Native Americans. It was, he wrote to Stieglitz a week after his arrival in Taos, “the perfect place to regain one’s body and soul.”

As he began to explore the “richness” and “bigness” of the spectacular arroyos and canyons, he pronounced the countryside “simply too beautiful. I have never seen anything so lovely in my life.” During his first months in New Mexico, Hartley sought to master the unfamiliar scene by experimenting with simple pastel sketches in which he focused on the brilliant desert light, changing landscape hues, and undulating terrain. “To get my hand in,” he wrote Stieglitz, he was “copying nature as faithfully as possible.” Hartley enlivened these landscape renderings with dabs of color, giving the images a “certain something that has come to me out of six years’ devotion to abstraction,” as he put it.

Hartley also found artistic inspiration in santos, ceremonial altarpieces created by Spanish-Americans. He based a series of still lifes on the santos that covered the walls of his studio and on examples he studied in other private collections and museums. Echoing the simple, mystical faith of Hispanic artisans, Hartley’s still lifes—executed with flat de-signs and two-dimensional figures—introduced objects such as candles and fruit to complement a central, saintly figure.

After a time, the novelty and challenge of depicting Taos subjects began to pall on the ever-restless Hartley, who complained to Stieglitz that “I feel as if I were too near the sky all the time.” Alarmed by an outbreak of influenza, he moved on to Santa Fe, where he worked in a studio provided by the Santa Fe Mus-eum. He was immediately captivated by what he called “a magnificently sculptural country.” The landscape, he declared, was “strong, sober, starkly simple, and the light is hard and clear …”

Hartley returned to New York in November 1919. In his studio he completed a series of oils he had begun in Santa Fe that translated his commitment to “a sturdier kind of realism” into strong depictions of the Southwest. In the Cezanne-like New Mexico Landscape, for example, Hartley enlivened a view of sharply pointed foothills by employing a low-key palette of blues, greens, pinks, and reds to help define the “wondrous lava upheavals” juxtaposed against blue skies. “I began to paint in the key of the West,” Hartley explained to Georgia O’Keeffe. “I have never put down such passion.” Apparently Hartley had to be far removed from the scene to pour his emotions into paint.

Indeed, his most profound responses to the Southwest came in a series called New Mexico Recollections, which he painted after he returned to Berlin in the early 1920s. Executed 5,000 miles away and several years after he left the region, these audacious, compelling remembrances throb with energy, bold forms, and strong colors. Hartley used thick, bravura brush strokes to dramatize emphatic shapes and stark landscape contrasts in compositions filled with energy and power.

By the time he completed his last southwestern oil, in Paris in 1924, Hartley had exhausted his New Mexico inspiration. “The storms had passed,” as art historian Patricia Janis Broder has put it, “and he had exorcised the demons. His passion to paint New Mexico was spent.”

For the next decade Hartley shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic, painting various subjects in Europe and New England until 1932, when a Guggenheim travel grant took the painter to Mexico City. His initial reaction to the culture and landscape of Mexico was characteristically euphoric: “What a lovely city and such people … every face is a copy of Aztec culture,” he reported.

Settling in the high altitude of Mexico City, ringed by dramatic volcanic peaks, Hartley declared he wanted “these mountains for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—so grand—simple and symphonic.” He promptly immersed himself in the study of Aztec and Mayan art, area ruins, and museum artifacts, hoping to get a handle on the exotic culture and rugged topography of the country.

Visiting Teotihuacán, the so-called city of the gods, Hartley was fascinated by archaeological excavations of two enormous pyramids and an elaborately decorated temple. They represented, he wrote to a friend, “the grandest experience of my life,” embodying the best that “departed civilizations can offer.”

His high spirits were enhanced by the presence in Mexico City of friends like painter Andrew Dasburg, photographer Paul Strand, and poet Hart Crane. But Hartley was devastated when Crane committed suicide by jumping off the ship carrying him back to the U.S. after his own Guggenheim year in Mexico. The artist encapsulated his grief in Eight Bells Folly: Memorial to Hart Crane, a symbol-filled marine-scape reflecting aspects of the poet’s demise: The number 33 on the ship’s sails refers to Crane’s age, and the number eight on the buoy, surrounded by the eyes of other drowned souls, signifies eight bells—or noon—the time when the poet leapt overboard. It is a potent elegy to a lost friend.

Burdened by Crane’s suicide, weakened physically by the heat and altitude, unable to come to grips with the Mexican landscape, and isolated from his friends, Hartley was ready to leave Mexico at the end of his Guggenheim year. He yearned for the rejuvenation he felt Europe and his friends in Germany offered. “Volcanoes are noble and thrilling but they are not affectionate and you cannot throw your arms about them,” he noted ruefully in a letter.

Despite his initial outbursts of enthusiasm, Hartley judged his Mexican sojourn a failure. It was, he recalled later, “the one place I shall always think of as wrong for me … It is a place … [where] the light will wear you down, the air will fatigue—height will oppress…. Perhaps you can learn the secret of all the dark living but you will change your whole being to do it.”

Turning his back on Central America, he sailed out of Veracruz headed for Europe. Ahead lay sober depictions of the Alps, monumental works in Nova Scotia, and toward the end of his life, the powerful images of his native Maine for which he would be best remembered.

Considering the physical and psychological burdens under which he labored, Hartley created a surprisingly large number of memorable paintings during his stays in the Southwest and Mexico. Looking at them today, one is struck by how well he captured the vastness, heat, clear air, and splendid topography of each place. For this troubled, gifted artist, visits to New Mexico and Mexico constituted significant chapters in an important and distinguished career.

Photos courtesy the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Featured in January 1999