“I have achieved the sacred pilgrimage to Mount Katahdin – exceeding all my expectations so far that I am sort of helpless with words.”
- Marsden Hartley
Even among the greatest American artists, Marsden Hartley holds a special place. His influences couldn’t have been more seismic – Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse. But the primary influence of this groundbreaking American Modernist wasn’t a person. It was a place, a special place that took hold of him from birth, and that he would never let go of.
Born in Lewiston, Maine in 1877, Marsden Hartley was just eight years old when his mother died. To find the way to his future, the heartbroken boy had two places to look. Outward, he had the grounding presence of the rugged terrain, the peace of the wild woods and water, and the soul-stirring power the Atlantic coastline. Looking inward, he had his intellect and his imagination.
While in his teens, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Soon, the young artist would begin training at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Not long after, he would be awarded a scholarship to the Cleveland School of Art.
With a rare artistic talent and an intellectual curiosity that frequently brushed up against the spiritual, Marsden Hartley moved to New York in 1898 to study painting at the New York School of Art. While attending the National Academy of Design, he discovered a kinship with the transcendental works of Thoreau and Emerson, the self-realized poetry of Walt Whitman and the mystical art of Albert Pinkham Ryder – whose paintings he admired and whose Greenwich Village studio he often visited.
For Hartley, the artistic and the spiritual were now intertwined, and he followed their double-helix path back to his origins.
Picture an abandoned farm in Maine. Imagine a young Marsden Hartley claiming it as his studio, creating the first of his mature works with Maine as his muse and model. Now imagine those works in the New York gallery of the influential Alfred Steiglitz, at the young artist’s first solo exhibition.
In the mind of Marsden Hartley, it was all about the imagination.
“I have always said that you do not see a thing until you look away from it,” he wrote in his essay, Is Art Necessary? “In other words, an object or a fact in nature has not become itself until it has been projected in the realm of the imagination. Therefore what has been retained in the mind’s eye is what lives.”
His exhibition at the Steiglitz studio highlighted his paintings of Maine’s rugged and mysterious western hills. Years later he would return his focus – and mind’s eye – to the higher grounds of Maine, in particular, the state’s iconic landmark, Mt. Katahdin. It would be a long and circuitous route, however, back to his home state.
Marsden Hartley moved to Paris in 1912 and was drawn into the avant-garde circle of artists and writers, among them Gertrude Stein who encouraged Hartley to write as well as paint. As his influences expanded and his work evolved, Hartley would spend the next two decades and a half between Europe and the United Sates, leaving paintings in his wake from Berlin to New Mexico.
During all that time, his mind’s eye never lost sight of the place that was his one and only home. Not only did he return to Maine for good in 1937, he declared his desire to become “the painter of Maine.”
His vision was realized. Today his paintings of Maine are treasured in galleries and collections around the world. Yet there is only one place to see with your own eyes the places and people that entered and took permanent residence in Hartley’s. They are the places he painted, many of them still appearing the way they appeared – at least at first glance – to the artist himself.
Among his favorite locations for expressing his unique vision of Maine and its people: Penobscot Bay, Vinalhaven and Hurricane Island, Georgetown and Fox Island, the Schoodic Peninsula, the Maine woods, Camden Hills from Baker’s Island, Lovell and Kezar Lake, Robin Hood Cove, Madawaska. And, of course, the one place that captured his imagination and called his spirit like no other – Mount Katahdin.
Marsden Hartley died in Ellsworth, Maine in 1943 at the age of 66. His ashes were scattered on the Androscoggin River that flows through Lewiston, his childhood home.
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