A Vagabond Painter Looks for Home

On "Marsden Hartley’s Maine," on view at the Met Breuer through June 18

Modernism and regionalism, two seemingly opposing forces in 20th-century art, came together in the paintings of Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). This is the premise of “Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” a haunting if narrow exhibition now on view at the Met Breuer—a homecoming of its own for the American master.

This is the first Hartley survey in New York since 1980, when his work filled these same gallery walls in what was then the Whitney Museum. For this “painter from Maine”—as Hartley declared himself to be after a lifetime of wandering—homelessness and homecoming became interwoven with the same modernist thread.

“Hartley transformed American modernism by approaching his place of origin as a lifelong creative resource,” write the exhibition’s co-curators, Randall R. Griffey of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Donna M. Cassidy of the University of Southern Maine and Elizabeth Finch of the Colby College Museum of Art, the collaborating institution where the exhibition will go on view in July.

Early on, Hartley thought of himself “as near being a man of no land as anyone I know, spiritually speaking.” Hartley was 8 years old when his mother, Eliza, died in the Maine mill town of Lewiston. The death divided his family and left him without a home. Inspired by the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he found a path back to his own sense of place through his paintings. Mixing the innovations of European modernism with the vernaculars of American craft, Hartley sought to go beyond mere appearances by transforming his impressions into felt objects. “For both Emerson and Hartley,” writes the poet Richard Deming in the exhibition’s catalog, “the work of art is not the thing itself, or even a representation of the thing itself, but the artist’s process of imagining.”

“The Ice Hole, Maine” (1908-09).

“The Ice Hole, Maine” (1908-09).

In “Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” this process begins at full imaginative power in a suite of paintings and drawings he created between 1907 and 1910 of the mountains along the Maine-New Hampshire border—extraordinary work that launched his career when exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, then the center of American modernism. With heavy brushstrokes influenced by the Italian Neo-Impressionist Giovanni Segantini, along with the textile crafts he saw in his native state, Hartley wove incantatory visions in paint. He captures the crackle of brown leaves in “Maine Woods” (1908), the bitter wind of “Winter Chaos, Blizzard” (1909), and the crystalline lake of “The Ice Hole, Maine” (1908-09). Hartley renders every element—the clouds, the water, the patches of forest—with the same high-keyed brilliance.

Just as Hartley searched out a New England iconography in his totemic paintings, he looked to modern painters, both in America and Europe, as spiritual mentors. After discovering the brooding seascapes of Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917), Hartley’s palette became darker. Following the centennial celebration of the birth of Winslow Homer, Hartley turned from the mountains to the rocky coast for a series of paintings inspired by Prouts Neck, where Homer lived and worked.

Hartley’s “Lobster Fishermen” (1940-41). Credit: Marsden Hartley/The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hartley’s “Lobster Fishermen” (1940-41). Credit: Marsden Hartley/The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paul Cézanne was another influence. Cézanne’s bathers became transformed into Hartley’s iconic lifeguards and sportsmen of Old Orchard Beach. Stirred by Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, Hartley also made a pilgrimage to his own magic mountain of Katahdin. An astonishing series of primary colors and shapes of Katahdin that Hartley painted from 1939 through 1942 recalls those early hills of 1910 and brings the exhibition full circle.

Marsden Hartley, Mt. Katahdin, Maine, No. 2

Marsden Hartley, Mt. Katahdin, Maine, No. 2

The exhibition suggests other unexpected influences: The Mount Fuji of Hiroshige and Hokusai in Hartley’s mountains; the hinterglasmalerei, or reverse-glass painting, of Bavarian folk art in Hartley’s use of black ground.

These brief inclusions hint at the problem with “Marsden Hartley’s Maine”: its narrow focus; “Maine” without the full richness of Hartley. There may be an argument to exclude his famed abstract “Portrait of a German Officer” (1914), but it makes less sense to edit out paintings of Gloucester, Mass., or Nova Scotia, when Hartley’s notion of place was rooted as much in an idea as in geography.

At the same time, the questions that such a focused exhibition can raise may be lost in a broader survey. Hartley’s paintings remain fresh today because they put down their roots in composite soil. He reached for a place of belonging in his art even as he never quite attained it in his life. “You don’t transpose a New Englander,” Hartley declared. “He can’t escape himself ever—he can only widen his width—and that’s what I’ve done.”