Marsden Hartley – American Modernism

Marsden Hartley

Marsden Hartley was born in 1877 in Maine and studied art in school. Influential in his development as an artist were his association with Alfred Stieglitz beginning in 1909 and, in the years that followed, his travels to Paris and Berlin, which introduced him to French Modernism and the German avant-garde.

Advents and advances in science and technology at the turn of the 20th century had a profound impact for many artists – innovations such as photography, X-rays, automobiles, airplanes, and the study of optics, color theory, and physics, even spiritualism. At the same time, many Modernists grappled with the rise of industrial capitalism and the rapidly changing modern world at the beginning of the 20th century. The core of American Modernism took place between the world wars. In this movement, many of these European themes were replicated and given their own particular American brand, which often emphasized the disillusionment of modern urban life. Hartley, while grouped with American Modernists, is notable for his strong penchant toward styles of the European Modernists, as well as being among the first artists to embrace abstraction.

Pablo Picasso, Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier), Paris, late spring 1910, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 29″ (100.3 x 73.6 cm) – MoMa
Vasily Kandinsky, Improvisation 28 (Second Version), 1912, oil on canvas, 44 5/16 x 64 inches (112.6 x 162.5 cm) – Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

In Hartley’s works from the 1910s, the influence of friend and artist Wassily Kandinsky is clear. Around the same time that Kandinsky painted his famous Improvisation 28, Hartley similarly called on color and the non-narrative structure of music to convey spiritual meaning in visual art.

At the same time, we also see the impact of Cubism. Cubists were interested in the science of optics and X-rays, exploring how a single object could be viewed in multiple planes and angles at once, beyond the conventions of material reality. In Abstraction (c. 1916-1917), Hartley depicts a Cape Cod sailboat in this familiar Cubist terminology, here dominated by flat planes of color.

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