By Helen A. Harrison
“I wish to declare myself the painter from Maine,” wrote Marsden Hartley in an essay that accompanied his 1937 exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place. This affirmation of devotion to his native state—he was born in Lewiston in 1877—is the raison d’être for “Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” on view through June 18 at the Met Breuer, in the former Whitney Museum building on Madison Avenue.
The exhibition spans the artist’s entire career, taking him full circle from his early figure drawings of local characters and neo-Impressionist Maine landscapes to his final series of paintings depicting Mt. Katahdin, which he claimed as his own, much as Cézanne did Mont Sainte-Victoire and Japanese artists did Mount Fuji. To emphasize the point, the installation includes a Cézanne lithograph and prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige from the Met’s collection that illustrate their treatment of those iconic subjects. In fact the Met owns two major Cézanne paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, but apparently they couldn’t spare either one to represent a more pertinent relationship to the Hartley oils.
Perhaps it’s just as well, since Hartley suffers in direct comparison to artists like Cézanne and Winslow Homer, whose influence he acknowledged. The show is peppered with related examples from the Met’s holdings. Next to a trio of Hartley’s studies of waves beating against Maine’s rocky shore, Homer’s 1895 masterpiece, “Northeaster,” steals the show. In contrast to Homer’s luminescent breakers, Hartley’s waves are as static and opaque as plaster. The same quality is evident in his clouds, which often seem as solid at the hills over which they loom. To be fair, Hartley wasn’t a veristic painter aiming for fidelity to nature. His impulse was far more subjective, more akin to the Expressionists whose work he emulated in Paris, Munich, and Berlin before the First World War forced him back to the US.
After a disappointing 1909 debut at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, Hartley painted a series of so-called dark landscapes inspired by Albert Pinkham Ryder. Here’s a comparison that doesn’t diminish either artist: Hartley’s “The Dark Mountain,” 1909; and Ryder’s “Moonlight Marine,” painted and re-painted over a 20-year period, 1870-90. Both men approached landscape as a point of departure for emotional and spiritual themes, moody reflections on inner states of being. In Hartley’s 1938 portrait of Ryder, an homage painted two decades after the grand old visionary’s death, his gaze seems to turn inward and outward at the same time. A similar haunted stare is on Hartley’s own face in Stieglitz’s 1916 photograph of the artist, taken soon after his return from Europe.
Stieglitz captured Hartley’s inner turmoil following the death of his Prussian lover, Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg. Several of his 1914-15 abstract paintings, which are outside the scope of this exhibition, memorialize the handsome young officer, who was killed early in World War I. Needless to say, they didn’t go over well in New York after the US entered the war, and in 1917 Hartley went to Ogunquit, Maine, in part to reconnect with his roots and re-think his artistic direction. For the rest of his life he would travel widely, restlessly searching for an anchorage, but would always be drawn back to his home state, where he finally settled in 1937. Devoting himself to interpreting the land and its people, he fell in line with the prevailing quest for national identity that pervaded much Depression-era art. The very fact that Stieglitz named his third and last gallery An American Place indicates how even such a staunch Modernist responded to that trend.
Until his death in 1943, Hartley looked at Maine through the lens of a solitary, closeted gay man, couching his homoerotic imagery as celebrations of Yankee strength and resiliency. Aptly described in the gallery wall text as “hypermasculine rural hunks,” his fishermen, lumberjacks, and athletes are as solid as Maine’s rocks and trees. Yet his studies of harvested logs bound for the timber mills suggest the vulnerability of nature and symbolically of man—or, more literally, the young men who will soon march off to yet another world war. Echoes of Hartley’s long-lost lover add poignancy to the works that celebrate the virile male body so overtly.