Among Marsden Hartley's earliest images are his paintings of mountains, beginning in 1908 to 1909 with his masterwork, Carnival of Autumn (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Years later, while residing in France in 1927, Hartley revived his interest in the subject with a series of paintings depicting Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence. Later, in New Hampshire, Hartley embraced his return home and painted the mountains of Franconia Valley. Hartley found in the New Hampshire mountains something inspiring at the most profound level. They provided him with a new way of seeing the American landscape. No longer hampered by the myths associated with the mountains of the south of France and the reputation of Paul Cézanne, Hartley could explore his own vision of nature and its place within his own artistic expression. With its rigorous composition, bold brushwork and striking, exuberant color, Mountains, No. 19 exemplifies the finest of Marsden Hartley's New England landscapes of the 1930s.
Hartley returned to the United States after his second European stay that lasted almost nine years. During this period of his career, Hartley was determined to reintegrate himself into a country from which he had felt isolated and alienated. The artist enthusiastically ventured into New Hampshire, while at the same time carefully avoiding his boyhood home of North Lovell, Maine, which evoked bitter memories of loneliness and estrangement. In New Hampshire Hartley set out to paint the mountains, spending time hiking, climbing and painting. Just as he had found Mont Sainte-Victoire to be a continuous source of inspiration, so too did the White Mountains of New Hampshire provide an emotional lift that would serve his artistic and expressive needs.
Hartley arrived in Provence in 1926, settling in the town of Aix-en-Provence. Having struggled to paint in the previous year, the effect of this move was electric. Hartley now undertook to transform his art, using the innovations of Cézanne as his starting point. "In Hartley's search for some direction that might bring him much needed attention and emotional support, his imagination began to be dominated by Cézanne. Whereas his earlier emulation of Cézanne had focused on still lifes, Hartley now looked to the landscape motifs Cézanne had preferred in his later years...He appropriated not only Cézanne's subject matter, but his style as well, although the broad parallel brushstrokes in Hartley's paintings and their raw primary hues were clearly post-Cézannean. Cézanne's goal had been to 'make of Impressionism something solid and durable.' In Hartley's decision to take up where Cézanne had left off, he tried to push this goal even further. Hartley derived his basic technique of parallel striations of color from Cézanne, but by exaggerating the strokes and ordering them into distinct bands or registers, he created a remarkably architectonic effect." (B. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, New York, 1980, p. 75)
As he did years before when he transformed Picasso's Synthetic Cubism into his epic German Officer series, with Mountains, No. 19 Hartley transforms the innovations of Cézanne to create a highly original painting that reflected the new direction for his art. Large in scale, the painting conveys a profound sense of the mountain's enormity, which is further emphasized by Hartley's decision to nearly fill the canvas with his depiction of the mountain. Mountains, No. 19 reveals the artist's innovative painting technique that he rediscovered during his time in Provence. Short, vertical brushstrokes cover the composition and infuse the entire work with vitality and energy. Likewise the brilliant autumn palette of bold vermilions, tawny hues, and rich greens set against the pastel blues and pinks of the sky is unequalled by other modern painters of the era.
Hartley's enchantment with New Hampshire did not last, and by the time he returned to New York later in the fall of 1930 he was filled with anxiety about how works such as Mountains, No. 19 would be received by the community of artists, collectors and critics. Yet his fears proved to be unfounded, as the exhibition of the summer's work at Steiglitz's newly formed gallery, An American Place, would provide sufficient income for another year.