The summer of 1910 proved to be a watershed for Marsden Hartley's artistic expression. Whereas his work of the previous two years had largely been executed in a post-Impressionist style, by February 1910 Hartley had seen the work of Henri Matisse at Alfred Steiglitz's gallery 291 and he had engaged in deep conversations with fellow painter Max Weber, who had studied in the Matisse class organized in Paris by Sarah Stein. As a result, Hartley discovered an entirely new visual vocabulary that expanded the basic tenets of his artistic expression. Returning in the summer to his boyhood town of North Lovell, Maine, Hartley explored this new means of expression with a new-found intensity, creating intimately-sized paintings such as Autumn Cascade I that was among the most avant-garde works created in the United States at the time.
"Hartley described his approach in these paintings to his niece: 'I do not sketch much these days for I work almost wholly from the imagination--making pictures entirely from this point of view using the mountains only as a backdrop for ideas, . . this is difficult art--almost anybody can paint from nature--it calls for real expert power to create an idea and produce it as one sees it in the mind.' The results combined high key, Fauve color with thickly impastoed, distinct brushstrokes which, as in Hartley's 1908-09 paintings, create a flattened, artificial space. In several works, such as Composition (1910, oil on board, 11. 1/2 x 11. 1/2 inches, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts), the entire expression is conveyed through the brushstroke itself, creating a degree of gestural abstraction that would not be surpassed in America until Abstract Expressionism." (B. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, New York, 1980, p. 21)
Hartley's rigorous approach to composition is clearly evident in Autumn Cascade I. Whereas earlier paintings from 1908 and 1909 still relied on observation of nature modified by the artist's personal expression, in works such as Autumn Cascade I, Hartley's pure subjective artistic vision--as expressed through color and gesture--gives rise to a new form of Modernism.
The jewel-like composition of Autumn Cascade I explodes with color and thick, vigorous brushstrokes. Bold blues, yellows, reds and oranges, highlighted with whites and tones of pink animate the surface. Energetic strokes suggest the movement of foliage in a light breeze or the sparkling mountain waterfall as it cascades into a glistening pool. Works such as Autumn Cascade I would revitalize Hartley's art and compel him to look deeper into himself to continue to create highly innovative and powerful paintings.