The most important works of Marsden Hartley's oeuvre emerged from the social, political and personal turmoil of his seminal trip to Europe from 1912 to 1915. Representative of Hartley's greatest works from the 1910s, Lighthouse is one of the artist's final and most accomplished paintings from this European sojourn. Painted in Berlin in April 1915, months before Hartley was forced to return to America due to the duress of the war, Lighthouse is a culmination of Hartley's European experience and one of the earliest and most compelling examples of American Modernism.
Born in Lewiston, Maine on January 4, 1877 and given the name at birth of Edmund Hartley, the artist was the ninth child of Thomas Hartley and Eliza Jane Horbury. His mother died when he was eight and his father remarried Martha Marsden when Hartley was twelve; the newlyweds subsequently moved to Ohio and sent Edmund to live with his sister in Augusta, Maine. A lonely child, he left school at fifteen to work and shortly thereafter 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, hence to be known as Marsden Hartley.
Prior to 1911, and before his travels to Germany, Hartley's finest early works present the Maine landscape in a Post-Impressionist 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 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 alludes to the underlying unity of the natural world. These works range from dark and brooding to brightly colored seasonal celebrations. Carnival of Autumn (1908, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, fig. 1) is characteristic of these early works in its rounded forms, dense spatial relations and short, syncopated brushstrokes of varying hues woven together to define the mountain's terrain.
These 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 latter works, compelling him to travel abroad to further his artistic development; with Stieglitz's assistance he left for Paris in April 1912.
At the time, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism were the dominant movements in the city of lights, widely considered the capital of the modern art world. Paris was alive with intellectual debate and theoretical discourse, a nexus of which was the famed salon of ex-patriot writer Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo, at 27 rue de Fleurus, where avant-garde luminaries often convened. Hartley befriended the siblings and spent much time in their atelier, encountering the work of Modern masters such as Picasso, Georges Braque, Matisse and Paul Cèzanne and meeting many of them in person. Through visits to the studios of Picasso, Franz Kupka, Robert Delaunay and others, Hartley gained a strong working knowledge of Synthetic Cubism and began to incorporate it into his work. He also would have been aware of the growing influence of African and Oceanic primitive art in the work of Picasso, Braque and others.
In Paris Hartley also formed a close relationship with a German group that included sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck and his younger cousin Karl von Freyburg. These young men introduced him to the work of Wassily Kandisky and Franz Marc as well as the German Expressionist almanac Der Blaue Reiter. Hartley was instantly drawn not only to the intensely-colored abstraction, but also to the spiritual content in works by these artists such as Kandinsky's Improvisation 21A (1911, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany, fig. 2). Exposure to the Blaue Reiter group also introduced Hartley to various traditional Bavarian folk arts such as the reverse-oil-on-glass (hinterglasbilder) painting tradition, of which Kandinsky was particularly fond. Hartley also read and was deeply influenced by Kandinsky's On the Spiritual in Art and began to adapt aspects of his circle's work into his paintings. This influence is evident in the palette, structure and incorporation of musical and Buddhist iconography in Hartley's Musical Theme (Oriental Symphony) (1912-13, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts) and Painting No. 1 (1913, Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, fig. 3). Hartley's respect for the Blaue Reiter artists was mutual and he visited them in Munich in 1913, exhibiting four paintings with the group in the seminal Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon that fall.
Despite the energy and creative intensity of Paris, it was Berlin that captured Hartley's imagination and satisfied his artistic yearning. He first traveled to the imperial capital at Rönnebeck's invitation in January 1913 and immediately fell in love with the city. He stayed three weeks and returned in May to live, remaining with short breaks until December of 1915 when the war precipitated his return to the States. He recalled later of the forceful appeal of Berlin: "I was so overcome with the speed, the brilliance, the spotlessness of the life and the city that I moved there later...I was so impressed with all that flair and perfection of the Kaiser regime...The intense flamelike quality of the life there--for things were of course up on their toes and ready to kick off. Such spick and spanness in the order of life I had never witnesses anywhere--not merely because the military life provided the key and clue to everything then--but this sense of order flowed over into common life--and such cleanliness prevailed as hardly to believe--the pavements shining like enamel leather...I had never felt such a sense of voluptuous tension in the air anywhere. It was all so warm to my long chilled New England nature and provided the sense of home always so needed in my life...A week in Berlin made me feel that one had come home." (Somehow a Past, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997, pp. 84-87)
Hartley immersed himself in Berlin and found a particular niche in the city's thriving homosexual culture. Much more open than the United States at the time, Berlin had embraced a liberal approach to sexuality. Patricia McDonnell writes, "During the time that Hartley lived in Berlin, the German military symbolized homosexuality. It was a deeply rooted trope on the street as well as in the popular press and international journalism. A considerable contingent of Berlin's gay male population lived as part of the German military. Starting in 1909, an international scandal involving the Kaiser's closest friends erupted and brought that fact in graphic detail to the public. The headlines and comics of the mainstream media, at the time of the affair and long after, cemented the equation between the German soldier and homosexuality. Hartley had friends in the military, especially Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg. He lamented to artist friend Charles Demuth, a man who also was gay and spent time in Berlin, that he could no longer go out to Potsdam, garrison for the troops, since World War I began. There was simply 'too much there to remember.'" ("'Portrait of Berlin': Marsden Hartley and Urban Modernity in Expressionist Berlin" in E.M. Kornhauser, ed., Marsden Hartley, New Haven, Connecticut, 2002, p. 53) The strong link between the military and homosexual cultures appealed to both Hartley's aesthetic and personal tastes, he wrote, "of course I soon began to have friends, chiefly Rönnebeck's friends--who took me in and liked me...There was so much to regale the eye with--that is, the new-learning eye--all to be a vividly revealing aspect of enlarging experience. Rönnebeck knew of my love for any kind of pageantry...and so began to initiate me into the German style." (Somehow a Past, p. 87)
Hartley took both the city and its pageantry as subjects for his initial Berlin works. He chose a subjective, rather than objective approach, expressing his response to life in the city in vibrant, eclectic canvases that encapsulate the disjunction of modern life as well as the multitude of stimuli associated with urban living. Works such as Portrait of Berlin (1913, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut) and The Warriors (1913, private collection, fig. 4) are powerful departures from the traditional architectural and representative subjects previously associated with metropolitan works. Hartley, "explained to his friend the writer Gertrude Stein in the fall of 1913, his art 'express[ed] a fresh consciousness of what I see + feel around me--taken directly out of life + from no theorist formulas as prevails so much today.'...[these paintings] are clamorous, blaring tributes to modern city experience--appropriately, they knit frenetic disjunctiveness with a moving pictorial inventiveness." ("'Portrait of Berlin': Marsden Hartley and Urban Modernity in Expressionist Berlin" in Marsden Hartley, pp. 39-40)
The Warriors manifests Hartley's enthrallment with the city as well as the continuing influence of Kandinksy. The homoerotically charged work conveys the artist's infatuation with Berlin's military life. Centered around a mandorla--an element that appears in many of Hartley's German works including Lighthouse--the painting depicts a multitude of German guards on horseback. While the four guards in the foreground are clearly defined, those in the background are arranged into an almost abstract pattern. The palette is characteristically reduced, the surface is dry and brushy and the repetition of eight pointed stars--another common image in Hartley's works from this period--demonstrates the artist's continuing interest in visual representations of spirituality. While the layering of forms, compression of space, symbolism and abstraction of composition demonstrates the influence of Synthetic Cubist works such as Picasso's Violon, Bouteille et Verre (1913, location unknown, fig. 5) and Kandinsky, Hartley employs these modes of seeing to articulate his own artistic passions. Indeed, Hartley's vision as expressed in these works is unique in American Modernism, and quite unlike the abstractions of his contemporaries in Europe. The paintings' origins were personal, which accounts in large measure for their singularity and visual power. Hartley proclaimed, "The intention of the pictures separately and collectively is to state a personal conviction-to express a purely personal approach. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the prevailing modes and tendencies--cliques and groups of the day. It has not intellectual motives--only visionary ones." ("1914 Catalogue Statement, 291," in G.R. Scott, ed., On Art, New York, 1982, p. 62)
In early 1914, Hartley visited the United States for several months and exhibited his Paris and Berlin paintings at 291. When he returned to Berlin in March, the mood of the city had changed as the outbreak of war encroached. At this point Hartley began his Amerika series, using the German spelling of his home country to identify these works. While scholarship has yet to definitively catalogue the series, each painting integrates the influence of European Modernism with Native American iconography into a highly structured and patterned composition that is a departure from Hartley's previous works, "In moving to a restrained patterned style, Hartley was exploring what was for him a new aesthetic principal." (W.M. Corn, "Marsden Hartley's Native Amerika" in Marsden Hartley, p. 72)
As with Indian Fantasy (1914, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina, fig. 6), each work is a brightly colored and vividly patterned hierarchical canvas that is distinguished by a powerful sense of design, strong central tepee element and symmetrical composition. As with Hartley's previous works, the impetus for the Amerika series was manifold, stemming from Hartley's internal emotions as well as his response to what he experienced around him. It emerged in part from Hartley's responses to the encroaching war and to a nascent, but growing fascination in Germany with American culture, and also as a way for the artist to assert his identity in a foreign land.
Hartley saw Native Americans as a pure race, elevated above the war that was contaminating Europe. The mythic, heroic Native American appealed to Hartley's romantic soul much as James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha had allured and captivated earlier generations of Americans. For Hartley, the Native American represented part of his cultural identity in a foreign land. In 1914 Hartley wrote to Stieglitz, "I find myself wanting to be an Indian, to paint my face with the symbols of that race I adore, go to the West and face the sun forever--that would seem the true expression of human dignity." (as quoted in W.M. Corn, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935, Berkeley, California, 1999, p. 254)
Hartley's interest in Native American objects and iconography began at least as early as 1912 when he painted Indian Pottery (Jar and Idol) (private collection, fig. 7), which depicts a pot and kachina doll in the collection of the Musée Trocadero in Paris. In Berlin he studied objects in the Museum für Völkerkunde, which had an important and remarkable collection of artifacts. According to Wanda M. Corn, however, "Like most of his artistic counterparts, Hartley was not a serious student of Indian history...for a series dedicated to the American Indian, Hartley freely mixed in motifs from other cultures: the Buddha from the East; mummies and pyramids from Egypt; the mandorla and cross from Christianity; and the eight-pointed stars and the eagle from multiple cultures, including America and Imperial German military. The Amerika series is very multicultural." ("Marsden Hartley's Native Amerika" in Marsden Hartley, p. 71)
Indeed, the influence of Bavarian folk art is also evident in the Amerika series. Roxanna Barry writes, "Stylistically, the Indian paintings are closely related to a form of Bavarian peasant art. In the fall of 1913, Hartley had mentioned his glass bilder paintings--religious in subject, primitive in style. They were simply composed, using bold lines to partition the picture space into a number of small scenes. Figures were stylized and pictographic, and decorative patterns were used throughout. The bilder had been popularized by the Blaue Reiter and had appeared frequently in the Almanac...In Indian Fantasy, Hartley uses the flat, primitive format of the bilder, its compartmentalization and its rhymical decorative patterns. He also uses his own rich, bold color, the mystical eight-pointed stars, and the majestic eagle, which is both an American and German emblem" ("The Age of Blood and Iron: Marsden Hartley in Berlin, Arts Magazine 54, October 1979, p. 170) Hartley's interest in Bavarian art continued into the late 1910s when he produced a series of paintings on glass with still-life motifs. In Still life No. 3 (Indian Corn) (1916, private collection, fig. 8) Hartley again combines the influences of Native American and Bavarian sources.
Europeans shared Hartley's romanticization of primitive American culture. While this interest did not hit its peak until later in the decade, Hartley, whether consciously or not, was aware of its presence during his stay in Berlin. "[I]n Berlin, where the outbreak of Amerikanismus was as serious as that of américanisme in Paris ...In other European avant-garde circles the Indian and Wild West gave way to the millionaire and New York, but not in Germany...Though Berliners...were often very critical of America, their flat and typecast readings of new-world culture were no less skewed or romantic than those of the Parisians." Sensitive to all that was around him, it is natural that as an American Hartley would respond to this current, especially as it appealed to his own pre-existing iconographic and romantic interests. Wanda Corn continues, "In Europe, knowledge of America came via movies, photographs, firsthand reports, and contact, whenever possible, with real live Americans. If those Americans happened to be artists, they often went native in the presence of such enthusiasm. Hartley had been in Berlin before the war and, given the milieu, felt the urge to paint a series of paintings he called Amerika, based on Indian motifs and the American West, a subject he knew no more intimately than the Germans." (The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935, pp. 111-12)
The Amerika series provided Hartley a method of self-identification in the tense and tenebrous populous of a foreign city on the verge of war--as well as a way to distinguish himself in artistic circles. Through the incorporation of Native American symbolism into an Expressionist, Synthetic Cubist format, Hartley was able to assert his identity as an American by introducing a new visual vocabulary while continuing to operate in the recognized European visual schema. He wrote to Stieglitz in February of 1913, "I have learned that what I came for is not to find art but to find myself and this I have done...I could never be French. I could never become a German--I shall always remain the American--the essence which is in me is American mysticism...and it is the same element that I am returning to now with a tremendous increase of power through experience." (as quoted in J.Hokin, Pinnacles & Pyramids: The Art of Marsden Hartley, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1993, p. 34) While the influences of artists such as Kandinsky, Marc and Picasso are evident, Hartley reinterprets them through a uniquely American sensibility and spirituality to create an entirely new visual vocabulary.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 and the death of his friend, and possible lover, Lieutenant von Freyburg in October of that year caused Hartley to abandon the Amerika series and commence his Military series, which incorporates martial iconography in Synthetic Cubist compositions. This series of twelve paintings commemorated von Freyburg and marked a stylistic departure from the systematic patterning of the Amerika series. The earliest and most famous of the series, Portrait of a German Officer (1914, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, fig. 9) is an abstract portrait of von Freyburg, represented by an amalgamation of layered symbols. As the series progresses, the composition evolves into a less centralized structure as demonstrated by Painting No. 5 of 1914-15 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Fig. 10). Hartley concurrently painted several canvases memorializing the pre-war urban life that he had loved so dearly, including Berlin Ante-War (1914, Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio) and Paris Days...Pre War (1914, collection of Jon and Barbara Landau, fig. 11)
In April 1915, Hartley achieved an entirely new synthesis with four final pictures, including Lighthouse, which Hartley painted in Berlin before the hardships of the war forced him to leave Germany in December. He extolled the strength of these works and his pride in them to Stieglitz in a letter dated April 6, 1915, "--a real and splendid surprise has overtaken me in these days--I have sold the last four pictures I have done--only just last week completed--in a way each complementary of the other as is often the case when one works under one spell as it were of whatever sort...the pictures are in some respects of I would even say all respects the completest I have done both as to intentions and execution and above all execution since I have learned how to eliminate all labor--all effort--all that awful struggling toward art. They are I believe in the region of pure expression which is first and last that which is most necessary to a real artist."
A continuation of the Amerika Series, Lighthouse is a powerful picture that is simultaneously expressive and mysterious as Hartley integrates and layers various symbols into a structured abstraction. Hartley flattens the pictorial space and layers the various components in Lighthouse to create a radically abstract and mystical painting that combines the structure of the earlier Amerika works with the expression of the Military series. Strong, triumphant vertical forms anchor the various blocks of patterns--recalling the military flags of earlier works--which float against the navy sea of the background. Indeed, one of these patterns at lower right suggests an American flag, while others appear to be more purely abstract. Whereas the composition is centered around the abstracted image of the lighthouse and mandorla and further structured by the two staffs, there is a slight asymmetry in many of the elements, which imbues the work with a rhythmic sense of movement. This is underscored by the white, wavy line on the body of the lighthouse, presumably alluding to water. Hartley overlays forms to create a painting that is simultaneously Synthetic Cubist and Expressionist.
Lighthouse is in many ways a summation of the two acclaimed series. The painting continues the color theme of the Military series with a palette of white, green, red, yellow and blue and also contains some of the flag imagery of earlier pictures such as Painting No. 5 as demonstrated in the light blue and white striped and green and white striped flags present in both works. More structured than earlier expressionist pictures, Lighthouse has a clearly delineated, monochromatic background and centralized composition that is reminiscent of Portrait of a German Officer, Painting No. 47, Berlin (1914-15, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.) and Painting Number 49, Berlin (1914, Mr. and Mrs. Barney A. Ebsworth, partial and promised gift to the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, fig. 12) in its strong vertical emphasis and compacted, centralized structure.
Recently rediscovered, Lighthouse has remained in Germany since its creation. In his April 6, 1915 letter to Stieglitz, Hartley describes the original purchasers of the four works, including Lighthouse, a young couple, Herr and Frau Wolfgang von Wachsmuth Harlan, "They have been bought by a young couple who have recently been married and are to be the only decorations in the music room which I hear is very beautiful...he Herr Wolfgang von Wachsmuth Harlan is a young publisher--and his Frau is a Lieder singer with exceptional ability and well known both in so-called upper circles. They have both taken a great fancy to me personally...he very flatteringly states that he has looked in vain for pictures to give him just that special thrill until now and has found it in my work which enthusiasm is of course all very sweet and splendid I am feeling a high pride in this matter since it gives me an immediate entrée into German art circles and as I am practically unheard of it is indeed good and quite as such things should happen." Lighthouse was later purchased from von Wachsmuth Harlan by renowned collector Hans Hasso Baron von Veltheim.
Lighthouse is a tour de force through which Hartley asserts his identity as an American artist working in a thoroughly avant-garde style while manifesting the tensions of the war and his passionate attachment to Berlin. Hartley's progressive paintings from the 1910s notably established a foundation for the Modernist exploration of a new visual vocabulary in America and have been universally hailed as monuments in American painting. These early masterworks, of which Lighthouse is exemplary, represent the apogee of Hartley's career and were seminally important to the development of art in twentieth-century America.