by Judith Christensen
"One Portrait of One Woman,"
"Western Flame," o/c, 1920
(Frederick R. Weisman Museum, Pepperdine University, Malibu) Given the emphasis on artists from across the Atlantic as historically significant during the first decades of this century, American early modernists, including the subject of this exhibition Marsden Hartley, are often overlooked. This comprehensive survey helps to rectify the situation because it illuminates the artist's influences and line of development. The earliest works, American Impressionist Maine landscapes from 1908-09, reflect Hartley's interest in the deism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his belief that an animate life force permeates all of nature. From there the show proceeds to his transitional explorations of European Modernism and the later work that defines his mature style.
Hartley was experimenting with abstraction, as demonstrated in the 1911 painting Abstraction, before his move to Paris in 1912. Dark lines--curves, right angles and sharp angles--separate the mostly blue-and-yellow geometric areas. The composition resembles the fractured cubist works of that period. Color further reflects the artist's exposure to Matisse and the Fauvists. Still Life (1912), painted while in Europe, displays the influence of Cezanne, along with cubist elements, especially in his rendering of the fabric.
In 1913, the year the Armory show opened in New York, Hartley moved from Paris to Berlin. There is a brightness to some of the paintings--such as Abstraction with Flowers and The Warriors--and a freshness to the composition. The European influences are still apparent. Also apparent are elements of a developing individual style. The symmetry, the bright color, the division of the picture plane, the use of patterning and the basic motif of the two curved lines, open at the bottom and meeting in a point at the top, are the same in The Warriors  and One Portrait of One Woman . What is different between the two is the imagery and the times in which they were painted.
It was his visit to Taos in 1918 that began to solidify his ideas about both form and content. A series of New Mexico landscapes in pastel and oil started Hartley on a path that would lead him back to his earlier belief in the eminence of nature, which had influenced his Maine paintings. But, instead of animated, impressionistic brushstrokes (as in the earlier Maine paintings), strong, solid forms dominated his later landscapes and still lifes.
The two portraits Marie Ste. Espirit and Abelard the Drowned, Master of the 'Phantom' [both 1938-39], painted after resettling in Maine during 1937, exemplify what Hartley himself called "a sturdier kind of realism." Each is a frontal view, with the figure occupying most of the picture plane. Hartley's straightforward depiction of these Northeasterners conveys a steadfast regard for honesty and simplicity. The Hartley who returned to his origins--both geographically and philosophically--was not the Hartley who had left. His aesthetics were informed but not dominated by his European experiences. He combined the personal background with a uniquely American vision to create paintings that express the strength and integrity of the places and people around him.