In 1916, Marsden Hartley visited the thriving artist's colony of Provincetown, Massachusetts, and produced some of the most abstract paintings of the era. Having recently returned from Europe, where he completed his now famous German Officer series, Hartley visited Provincetown at the invitation of radical writer John Reed. He remained there from July through October and "shared in the ferment of intellectual vanguardism then beginning there." (E. McCausland, Marsden Hartley, exhibition catalogue, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1952, p. 8) The colony's congregation of avant-garde intellectuals included a variety of artists, writers and actors and the setting was highly conducive to discourse that would influence its habitués for years to come. Hartley would later write that it was "surely the biggest summer that most of us have lived through." (Somehow a Past: The Autobiography of Marsden Hartley, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997, p. 94)
Inspired by sailboats off Provincetown, the Movement series of 1916 and 1917 are almost a complete rejection of the symbolist European works that directly precede them. In the simplified composition of Movement No. 3, Provincetown, flat planes and muted colors have replaced the crowded spaces and brilliant palettes of earlier works; manic energy has been replaced by a subdued pulse as formal investigation has supplanted emotional exploration. This dramatic shift in Hartley's work was due in part to 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. Both the failed exhibition and the hostile cultural sentiment were signs that Hartley's European subjects were not palatable in America and prompted the artist toward a stylistic shift concurrant with his physical relocation from the tumultuous, war-focused Berlin to the serene seaside colony of Provincetown. In their sense of place, they also demonstrate his subconscious ability to capture not just the appearance of his surroundings, but also its spirit. "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)
Movement No. 3, Provincetown is oriented around a central mast with flat planes of muted colors to suggest sails. The broad blue expanse suggests both sea and sky, and the upright forms are reminiscent of variously sized and shaped sets of billowing sails. The lack of a horizon line further emphasizes 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. Despite the abstract qualities of his Provincetown paintings, these compositions were nonetheless inspired by Hartley's 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.
In the Movement series, Hartley fuses European and American influences in a revolutionary manner. One of the last American artists to leave Europe after the outbreak of the war, Hartley was far more aware of and influenced by the Synthetic Cubist movement, led by such visionaries as Picasso and Braque, than were his American contemporaries. In Movement No. 3, Provincetown, he explores these theories through the sailboat, a quintessentially American subject. Barbara Haskell writes, "Hartley's Synthetic Cubist works of the Provincetown summer were not only comparable to those being executed in Europe, but they would not be equaled by another American artist for ten years." (B. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1980, p. 55)
The seminal Movement series, now considered some of Hartley's best works, "proved too advanced, however, for even the more sympathetic cosmopolitan admirers of his painting to fully appreciate." (Marsden Hartley, p. 55) It is this visionary quality, embodied in Movement No. 3, Provincetown, which renders the works continually compelling and demonstrates that, "the best Hartleys seem inevitable, immutable...When he is at his most convincing, the pioneer modernist looks clear, immediate, intense, and utterly contemporary." (K. Wilkin, Marsden Hartley, exhibition catalogue, 1985, n.p.)