Painted in 1916, Movement, Sails is one of the earliest and most advanced Cubist paintings produced in America. Marsden Hartley created this seminal work and a series of related paintings during his three month stay at the lively summer colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which had become a desirable vacation destination for New York's avant-garde cultural community of artists, writers, and actors when the conflict in Europe made travel abroad impossible. Hartley was invited to visit by radical writer John Reed and spent the summer commingling with other residents including Marguerite and William Zorach, Charles Demuth, and Eugene O'Neill. The personalities of these individuals formed a dynamic chemistry that Hartley found invigorating and he embarked on a new body of almost purely abstract compositions, including the present work, which were inspired by the movements of sailboats.
The Movement series of 1916 and 1917 represents a marked departure from the expressive and brightly-colored European works that directly precede them. In the simplified composition of Movement, Sails, flat planes and muted colors have replaced the crowded spaces and brilliant palettes of Hartley's earlier works. Movement, Sails represents a pivotal point in Hartley's career as he develops a quieter, more lyrical and poetic aesthetic. He wrote to fellow artist Carl Sprinchorn, "I want my work in both writing and painting to have that special coolness, for I am weary of emotional excitement in art, weary of episode, of legend and of special histories." (as quoted in E. Kornhauser, Marsden Hartley, exhibition catalogue, New Haven, Connecticut, 2002, p. 20)
There were two catalysts for this dramatic shift in Hartley's work. One was his forced departure from his beloved Berlin due to the impending war and his subsequent settling into the serene seaside colony of Provincetown. A highly sensitive individual, Hartley was deeply affected by his physical surroundings, often seeking a spiritual connection with a place and using his art as a vehicle to explore and transcribe its essence. "He struggled to comprehend and express creatively the tensions he perceived between the self and the spiritual world." (T. Ludington, Seeking the Spiritual: The Paintings of Marsden Hartley, exhibition catalogue, Ithaca, New York, 1998, p. 8) The second impetus was the lukewarm reviews of the "291" exhibition of his German works. The timing of the show was poor as the ongoing war had stirred a strong anti-German sentiment in America. According to Barbara Haskell, it "had reached such a feverish pitch that in New York City the music of Beethoven and Mozart was banned from performance." (Marsden Hartley, New York, 1980, p. 52) These factors combined to push Hartley in a new direction, to the powerful Synthetic Cubist compositions of the Movement series.
A formal exploration, Movement, Sails incorporates geometric planes of muted color to suggest the mast, hull and billowing sails of a boat. The broad white expanse and the lack of a horizon line further emphasize the painting's formal qualities while the round and horizontal forms along the lower edge of the painting stabilize the vertical orientation of the composition, much in the same way that a keel and hull stabilize a waterborne vessel. This acute reduction of abstracted elements was revolutionary for an American painting in the late 1910s. "Hartley was the most cosmopolitan painter of his time, and no perception of American provincialism could stay the power of his brilliant and enormously productive achievement during those years." (Seeking the Spiritual: The Paintings of Marsden Hartley, p. 34) Despite the abstract qualities of Hartley's Provincetown paintings, these compositions were nonetheless inspired by his observation of nature. The flat brushwork and overlapping geometry creates a sense of tension and movement in the simplified arrangement conveying the effects of wind and water on a sailboat in the harbor.
The Movement series, completed in Provincetown and Bermuda from 1916 to 1917 marked Hartley's final experimentation with pure abstraction. His shift from the symbolist Expressionism of the German Officer and Amerika series to the subdued Cubism of Movement, Sails was followed by the return of figurative elements in his art. The rapidity of these changes in style demonstrates Hartley's belief that, "Modern art must of necessity remain in the state of experimental research if it is to have any significance...I believe that it is more significant to keep one's painting in a condition of severe experimentalism than to become a quick success by means of cheap repletion." ("Art and the Personal Life" in Marsden Hartley: A Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1969, pp. 30-31) It was this continual experimentation and innovation that distinguishes Hartley as one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century.