Marsden Hartley first arrived in New Mexico in June of 1918. Although Taos and Santa Fe were meccas for avant-garde artists and writers, it was from the surrounding environs that he instantly drew inspiration. Hartley was captivated by the forms, colors and brilliant crystalline light and regarded the richly hued landscape as sacred, writing that, "any one of these beautiful arroyos and canyons is a living example of the splendour of the ages...and I am bewitched with their magnificence and their austerity; as for the colour, it is of course the only place in America where true colour exists, excepting the short autumnal season in New England." (as quoted in B. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, New York, 1980, p. 58)
Hartley first approached the landscape with pastels, making numerous sketches and large scale works, writing to Alfred Stieglitz that it allowed him to, "get a line on the qualities [of the landscape]." (as quoted in E.M. Kornhauser, ed., Marsden Hartley, New Haven, Connecticut, 2002, p. 301) Indeed, the softness of the medium is evident in his treatment of the sky in the present oil, New Mexico, the muted, mottled tones of which act as a foil for the bold terrain. The painting is exemplary of the virile, emotionally wrought compositions and the dry, brushy surface and brilliant colors that Hartley used to capture the essence of the Southwestern expanse. He has reduced the topography to variegated bands of saturated color punctuated by primordial mountains, their mass conveyed through deep tones of red and blue and heavy brushstrokes that create a weighted, sculptural effect. The rhythm inherent to the band of undulating mountains in the background and syncopated brushstrokes of the landscape capture the sensation of the dry breeze that drifts through the region.
As with many of Hartley's great works, there is a loneliness and yearning that permeate the vast, solitary landscape. An inveterate traveler, Hartley spent much of his life seeking to rekindle the happiness that he had experienced in his first trip to Europe from 1912 to 1915. Time and again he returned to the land, believing that its spiritual and mystical properties would aid his quest for solace. Mountains in particular were a leitmotif of Hartley's career, one that began with the Maine hills of his early paintings and followed him throughout his travels to his late Maine mountainscapes, some of his final works. He was naturally drawn to the sprawling array of New Mexican peaks and mesas, writing, "the country of the southwest is essentially a sculptural country...The sense of form in New Mexico is for me one of the profoundest, most original, and most beautiful I have personally experienced." (as quoted in T. Ludington, Seeking the Spiritual: The Paintings of Marsden Hartley, exhibition catalogue, Ithaca, New York, 1998, p. 40)
On May 17, 1921 The Anderson Galleries hosted an auction of 117 works by Hartley and 75 by fellow artist James N. Rosenberg. Hartley participated in the sale in order to fund a return trip to Europe, which he had been forced to leave six years earlier due to pressures from the war. The auction proved successful earning him almost $4,000 and he left for Berlin shortly thereafter. New Mexico is one of the eleven oil paintings of the Southwest that Hartley offered in the Anderson Galleries sale. It was purchased by James N. Rosenberg and remained in his collection throughout his life. In addition to being an artist and poet, Rosenberg was also a successful lawyer who worked on the reorganization of the United States Motor Company into the Maxwell Motor Company in 1912. In 1922 he founded the New Gallery in New York, which championed American and European Modern Art.