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 that were among the most avant-garde works created in the United States at the time.
Of his approach to these radically modern paintings, Hartley wrote, "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." (as quoted in B. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, New York, 1980, p. 21) The result was a series of expressive and abstract works including Autumn Cascade, which were rendered with a bright palette and richly textured surface. Indeed, in these paintings brushwork and color are as much subjects as the imagined landscape. Hartley's rigorous approach to composition is clearly evident in Autumn Cascade. 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, 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 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 would revitalize Hartley's art and compel him to look deeper into himself to continue to create highly innovative and powerful paintings.
The present work was one of 117 paintings sold by Hartley through the Anderson Galleries in May 1921 to fund a return trip to Europe. Forced to leave his beloved Germany in December 1915 due to the pressures from the war, Hartley had been yearning for a return trip to Europe ever since. The auction proved successful earning him almost $4,000 and he left for Berlin shortly thereafter. In Hartley's words, "the auction was a novel affair. It had never been done before with modern pictures...Everybody came to the exhibition--hundreds and hundreds during the almost two weeks...It was considered by everyone a triumph." (Somehow a Past: The Autobiography of Marsden Hartley, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997, pp. 103-04)