With its rigorous composition, dramatic brushwork and bold color, Camden Hills from Baker’s Island exemplifies Marsden Hartley's New England landscapes of the 1930s. During this period of his career, Hartley was determined to reintegrate himself into a country from which he had felt isolated and alienated. Just as he had found Mount Sainte-Victoire in the south of France to be a continuous source of inspiration, the landscape of the Northeast provided an emotional lift that would serve his artistic and expressive needs. Camden Hills from Baker’s Island is at once a traditional scene following in the Maine landscape tradition of Frederic Church and Winslow Homer, as well as a direct, emotional manifestation anticipating the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in the decades to come. This intriguing duality firmly established Hartley in the annals of both great American landscape painters and pioneers of American Modernism.
Born in Lewiston, Maine on January 4, 1877, the artist was the ninth child of Thomas Hartley and Eliza Jane Horbury and originally given the first name Edmund. Following his mother’s death when he was eight and his father’s remarriage to Martha Marsden when he was twelve, Edmund was sent to live with his sister in Augusta, Maine. A lonely child, he left school at fifteen to work and soon moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he began painting lessons in 1896. Demonstrating innate talent, Hartley was awarded a scholarship to the Cleveland School of Art and shortly thereafter earned a stipend to live and study in New York. He spent a year at William Merritt Chase's New York School of Art and four years at the National Academy of Design. In 1906 he adopted his step-mother's maiden name as a middle name and in 1908 he dropped his first name, declaring himself as the artist Marsden Hartley.
Hartley's finest early works present the Maine landscape in a style that demonstrates the technical influence of Italian painter Giovanni Segantini and the spiritual inspiration of American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Hartley adapted Segantini's short, stitch-like brushstrokes into a series of paintings that emphasize texture, pattern and a planar approach to space. They also demonstrate a spiritual, even mystical reverence for nature, as the tapestry of tightly-knit brushstrokes link the various elements of the composition and allude to the underlying unity of the natural world. These works range from dark and brooding to brightly colored seasonal celebrations.
The early Maine landscapes captured the attention of the pioneer photographer and Modernist dealer Alfred Stieglitz, establishing one of the most formative relationships of Hartley's career. At his radical gallery, 291, Stieglitz gave Hartley his first one man show in May of 1909, Exhibition of Paintings in Oil by Mr. Marsden Hartley of Maine. He also introduced the young artist to a group of other American Modernists, including Max Weber and Alfred Maurer, as well as the work of European avant-garde artists, such as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Hartley was immediately drawn to, and intensely interested in, the latters’ works, compelling him to travel abroad to further his artistic development. With Stieglitz's support, he left for Paris in April 1912.
After extensive travels as widespread as Berlin, Bermuda and Santa Fe, Hartley returned to his home state in 1937 with the goal of becoming “The” painter of Maine. Explaining his fascination with the trees and rocks of the area, Hartley once poetically wrote that “in them rests the kind of integrity I believe in and from which source I draw my private strength both spiritually and esthetically.” (as quoted in On Art, New York, 1982, p. 199) Expressing this spiritual appreciation for the natural landscape through visceral technique, Hartley’s works from this period, such as Camden Hills from Baker’s Island, are some of the most acclaimed paintings of his oeuvre.
In Camden Hills from Baker’s Island, Hartley captures the tumultuous environment of the Maine coast with simple, flattened forms defined by thick outlines of dark blacks and blues, which add a weighty monumentality to the rocks, mountains and dense forest. The choppy, vertical brushwork patterning in the foaming, white-capped sea creates physical and psychological tension and mirrors the craggy masses of trees on the islands. As developed in his famous Dogtown and Nova Scotia works, Hartley’s vigorous style here perfectly captures the harsh majesty of nature with a strikingly violent immediacy.