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Marsden Hartley

See also: American Art


Born in Lewiston, Maine, Marsden Hartley moved with his parents to Cleveland in 1892, where he attended classes at the Cleveland Art Institute. After settling in New York in 1898, he studied under William Merritt Chase and later at the National Academy of Design, but his style was most greatly affected by Albert Pinkham Ryder and the Impressionist Giovanni Segantini. He had his first one man show at Stieglitz's "291 " gallery in 1909. Through "291," he was introduced to the art of Cezanne and Picasso, whose ideas on structure he readily absorbed. While living abroad in Paris and Berlin from 1912 to 1915, his style was redirected toward abstraction by the influence of Kandinsky, Franz Marc and the Fauves. He worked in Provincetown, Maine, New Mexico, California and New York before returning to Europe in 1921. By 1920 Hartley's painting had become increasingly representational. His later landscapes, endowed with a rustic power, express a strong romantic attachment to his native land. He returned to America in 1930 and traveled extensively while working mostly in Maine. In addition to painting, Hartley also composed poetry and wrote on modern art.

- From "125 Masterpieces from the Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery"

Marsden Hartley, "Art and the Personal Life," 1928

As soon as a real artist finds out what art is, the more is he likely to feel the need of keeping silent about it, and about himself in connection with it. There is almost, these days, a kind of petit scandale in the thought of allying oneself with anything of a professional nature. And it is at this point that I shrink a little from asserting myself with regard to professional aspects of art. And here the quality of confession must break through. I have joined, once and for all, the ranks of the intellectual experimentalists. I can hardly bear the sound of the words "expressionism," "emotionalism," "personality," and such, because they imply the wish to express personal life, and I prefer to have no personal life. Personal art is for me a matter of spiritual indelicacy. Persons of refined feeling should keep themselves out of their painting, and this means, of course, that the accusation made in the form of a querulous statement to me recently "that you are a perfectionist" is in the main true.

I am interested then only in the problem of painting, of how to make a better painting according to certain laws that are inherent in the making of a good picture and not at all in private extraversions or introversions of specific individuals. That is for me the inherent error in a work of art. I learned this bit of wisdom from a principle of William Blake's which I discovered early and followed far too assiduously the first half of my aesthetic life, and from which I have happily released myself and this axiom was: "Put off intellect and put on imagination; the imagination is the man." From this doctrinal assertion evolved the theoretical axiom that you don't see a thing until you look away from it which was an excellent truism as long as the principles of the imaginative life were believed in and followed. I no longer believe in the imagination. I rose one certain day and the whole thing had become changed. I had changed old clothes for new ones, and I couldn't bear the sight of the old garments. And when a painting is evolved from imaginative principles I am strongly inclined to turn away because I have greater faith that intellectual clarity is better and more entertaining than imaginative wisdom or emotional richness. I believe in the theoretical aspects of painting because I believe it produced better painting, and I think I can say I have been a fair exponent of the imaginative idea.

I have come to the conclusion that it is better to have two colors in right relation to each other than to have a vast confusion of emotional exuberance in the guise of ecstatic fullness or poetical revelation both of which qualities have, generally speaking, long since become second rate experience. I had rather be intellectually right than emotionally exuberant, and I could say this of any other aspect of my personal experience.

I have lived the life of the imagination, but at too great an expense. I do not admire the irrationality of the imaginative life. I have, if I may say so, made the intellectual grade. I have made the complete return to nature, and nature is, as we all know, primarily an intellectual idea. I am satisfied that painting also is like nature, an intellectual idea, and that the laws of nature as presented to the mind through the eye and the eye is the painter's first and last vehicle are the means of transport to the real mode of thought: the only legitimate source of aesthetic experience for the intelligent painter.

All the "isms," from Impressionism down to the present moment, have had their inestimable value and have clarified the mind and the scene of all superfluous emotionalism; the eye that turns toward nature today receives far finer and more significant reactions than previously when romanticism and the imaginative or poetic principles were the means and ways of expression.

I am not at all sure that the time isn't entirely out of joint for the so called art of painting, and I am certain that very few persons, comparatively speaking, have achieved the real experience of the eye either as spectator or performer. Modern art must of necessity remain in the state of experimental research if it is to have any significance at all. Painters must paint for their own edification and pleasure, and what they have to say, not what they are impelled to feel, is what will interest those who are interested in them. The thought of the time is the emotion of the time.

I personally am indebted to Segantini the impressionist, not Segantini the symbolist,, for what I have learned in times past of the mountain and a given way to express it just as it was Ryder who accentuated my already tormented imagination. Cubism taught me much and the principle of Pissarro, furthered by Seurat, taught me more. These with Cezanne are the great logicians of color. No one will ever paint like Cezanne for example, because no one will ever have his peculiar visual gifts; or to put it less dogmatically, will anyone ever appear again with so peculiar and almost unbelievable a faculty for dividing color sensations and making logical realizations of them? Has anyone ever placed his color more reasonably with more of a sense of time and measure than he? I think not, and he furnished for the enthusiast of today new reasons for research into the realm of color for itself.

It is not the idiosyncrasy of an artist that creates the working formula, it is the rational reasoning in him that furnishes the material to build on. Red, for example, is a color that almost any ordinary eye is familiar with but in general when an ordinary painter sees it he sees it as isolated experience with the result that his presentation of red lives its life alone, where it is placed, because it has not been modified to the tones around it and modification is as good a name as any for the true art of painting color as we think of it today. Even Cezanne was not always sure of pure red, and there are two pictures of his I think of, where something could have been done to put the single hue in its place the art for which he was otherwise so gifted. Real color is in a condition of neglect at the present time because monochrome has been the fashion for the last fifteen or twenty years even the superb colorist Matisse was for a time affected by it. Cubism is largely responsible for this because it is primarily derived from sculptural concepts and found little need for color in itself. When a group feeling is revived once again, such as held sway among the Impressionists, color will come into its logical own. And it is timely enough to see that for purposes of outdoor painting, Impressionism is in need of revival.

Yet I cannot but return to the previous theme which represents my conversion from emotional to intellectual notions; and my feeling is: of what use is a painting which does not realize its aesthetical problem? Underlying all sensible works of art, there must be somewhere in evidence the particular problems understood. It was so with those artists of the great past who had the intellectual knowledge of structure upon which to place their emotions. It is this structural beauty that makes the old painting valuable. And so it becomes to me a problem. I would rather be sure that I had placed two colors in true relationship to each other than to have exposed a wealth of emotionalism gone wrong in the name of richness of personal expression. For this reason I believe that it is more significant to keep one's painting in a condition of severe experimentalism than to become a quick success by means of cheap repetition.

The real artists have always been interested in this problem, and you feel it strongly in the work of Da Vinci, Piero della Francesca, Courbet, Pissarro, Seurat, and Cezanne. Art is not a matter of slavery to the emotion or even a matter of slavery to nature or to the aesthetic principles. It is a tempered and happy union of them all.

Marsden Hartley Images

1914 Portrait of a German Officer
1922-23 New Mexico Recollections No. 12
1932 Carnelian Country
1934 New England Sea View - Fish House

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