Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Marden Hartley (1877-1943)


Universally agreed upon, Marsden Hartley was probably the most innovative and important artist of the group of modernist artists assembled by Alfred Stieglitz in the early 20th century, though it is arguable that Georgia O’Keeffe was the more important painter of the two. Marsden Hartley would, of course, have known Charles Demuth of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, another of the Stieglitz circle, also a homosexual man. Hartley was not only a painter, but a fine critic, writer and poet, whose texts demonstrate the complex nature of his scrabble to come to terms with the sense of abandonment caused by the loss of his mother at age eight, and by the lifelong struggle with his sexuality at a time when public acknowledgement of ones homosexuality could lead to total humiliation and ostracism. . Hartley’s life and his work demonstrate the living conundrum that homosexual men and women experienced at the end of the 19th and during most of the 20th century. That being said, his worship of the German War machine, and affair with a German officer (Karl von Freyburg) at the beginning of and during the first years of World War I is at best difficult to understand even from this nearly century remove in time. His painting, one of a series, “Portrait of a German Officer,” is the symbolic representation of the body of, and pays homage to von Freyburg.

It is said that the necessity of the closet created the need for Hartley to reinvent himself and his artistic style and philosophy repeatedly during his career, first as a modernist in which the requirement is that the artist’s innermost self be visible in the work, and later as a painter of the various regional American landscapes – he traveled to New Mexico, California, Massachusetts, New York, and of course returned to Maine - and created the series of abstracted portraits of plain fishermen and their families, in particular the Mason family in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. There, he worshipped the two Mason sons who were drowned at sea, and he wrote Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy, perhaps his best writing, based on his experiences in Maine and Nova Scotia.

Hartley’s portrait of himself as a young tank-shirted stud, painted toward the end of his life, is emblematic of his lifelong battle to recognize his inmost homosexual self, and his career and work both as an artist and writer demonstrate that constant conflict with his sexuality. He is enigmatically, a gay male artist who dealt with the male body, often tangentially through symbols to represent that body, and through writing about his great love for men that he must express also indirectly through metaphor and disguised as brotherly and/or familial in nature, and that love is then finally invested in the American landscape through his painting. Thus, his work is all about Hartley’s gay vision and its relationship to his sexuality.

*It is believed that it is acceptable to use this copyrighted image under the "fair use" section of United States copyright law for scholarly purposes. The original work, "Sustained Comedy," by Marsden Hartley belongs to the Carnegie Museum. It was a gift (1939) of Mervin Jules in memory of Hudson Walker, and is 28 & 1/2" x 22."


Weinberg, Jonathan. Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant- Garde. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

On the Web Sources

Gonzales, Ken. Hartley, Marsden, glbtq: and Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer Culture. Last modified January 13, 2006, viewed 9:24 A.M. EDT. , Tuesday, September 16, 2008.

Hartley, Marsden, "Sustained Comedy."Carnegie Museum of Art, Viewed Thursday, September 18, 2008, 10:24 A.M., EDT.

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Hartley, Marsden. Last modified August 16, 2008, viewed 9:00 A.M. EDT. Tuesday, September 16, 2008.

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