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Work of the Week: Marsden Hartley

Marsden Hartley was born in Lewiston, Maine in 1877 and although he lived there during his childhood, for the majority of his adult life he resided everywhere from Germany to France to Bermuda to the American Southwest. But for the last six years of his life, he returned to his home state for good. He was both looking for inspiration and responding to the prevalent Regionalist movement of the 1930s in which artists focused on rural and small town America. And Hartley cast himself specifically as a Mainer, almost spiritually professing, “And so I say to my native continent of Maine, be patient and forgiving, I will soon put my cheek to your cheek, expecting the welcome of the prodigal, and be glad of it.”

Mount Katahdin (pictured above) became one of his most important subjects, presented in a monumental light. The peak was an important symbol of the Maine landscape, with a long history of artistic portrayals by nineteenth-century painters like Frederic Edwin Church. But it also held great significance as a sightseeing destination. Designated a state park in 1931, it was central to Maine’s tourism efforts, which surely contributed to Hartley’s interest. He camped there in October 1939, soon producing, among other works, the vibrantly bold Mt. Katahdin (Maine), Autumn #2.

Hartley depicted the view as a series of horizontally stacked bands of color, retaining a largely naturalistic if limited palette of red, white, blue, and black. This color scheme bears nationalistic overtones, and it seems likely that Hartley saw it as a rebuttal to the patriotic claims of midwestern Regionalists such as Wood and Benton. Indeed, Hartley undoubtedly had their public image in mind when he posed for a publicity photograph with Mt. Katahdin (Maine), Autumn #2, wearing a checked flannel shirt as a deliberate Maine counterpoint to Wood’s Iowan overalls.

But he made such arguments formally as well. The artist varied his brushwork throughout the painting, constantly reinforcing the work’s two-dimensional quality. Short rhyming brushstrokes denote the feathery autumnal trees, while flatly painted white patches indicate stylized clouds. However, Hartley rendered the mountain itself with little visible brushwork, allowing its dark pyramid to dominate the composition without relief. Overall the composition reflected his belief that “Maine is likewise a strong, simple, stately and perhaps brutal country.” 

This painting—and 50 others by artists like Wood, Benton, and Georgia O'Keeffe—are on view in America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s through September 18.

Image Credits: 

Marsden Hartley. Mt. Katahdin (Maine), Autumn #2, 1939/40. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Edith and Milton Lowenthal Collection, Bequest of Edith Abrahamson Lowenthal, 1991.

“Katahdin as Seen by Bangor Painter.” Bangor Daily News, February 8, 1940. Marsden Hartley Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Copyright 1940 Bangor Daily News.