native son

| 31 Mar 2017 | 03:53

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), an icon of American modernism, was born in Lewiston, Maine, and died in Ellsworth. But he transcended his roots and traveled widely in his lifetime, only returning to his home state for good in 1937, when he declared himself the “painter from Maine.”

He is perhaps most famous for his abstract painting of a soldier, “Portrait of a German Officer” (1914), part of a series executed in Berlin and part of The Met’s permanent collection (but not included in the current show). The more than 100 works on view at The Met Breuer instead spotlight his Down East land- and seascapes — mountains, waves and rocky coasts—with nine paintings of the natives and a smattering of figure drawings thrown in.

Hartley’s mother died when he was 8, and a sense of loneliness, and dislocation, pervade many of the works and arguably contributed to his wanderlust. He was gay and also roamed Europe and North America to escape the provincialism of rural Maine. But whether in Paris, Berlin or New York, Maine remained a source of inspiration. As he wrote in “On the Subject of Nativeness — A Tribute to Maine” (1937): “My own education [began] in my native hills, going with me these hills wherever I went, looking never more wonderful than they did to me in Paris, Berlin, or Provence.”

A self-described “Maine-iac”, he always felt the presence of his home turf when he was away. In a 1929 letter to patron Alfred Stieglitz from the south of France, he stated: “I have never once stepped off my own soil — No matter where my eyes or my mind may have been[,] my feet have never left the soil that was the first to be called home to them.” And he kept going back, however briefly, summering in Ogunquit and visiting elsewhere in the state in pursuit of subjects to paint.

Memory, imagination and Transcendentalism fueled his art, as did Cézanne’s serial views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, Hokusai’s and Hiroshige’s colorful prints of Mount Fuji, Winslow Homer’s crashing waves in Prouts Neck, Maine, and Albert Pinkham Ryder’s dark seascapes. Hartley aspired to greatness and looked to these greats to show him the way. Maine’s folk art moved him. The mountain, in particular, captured his imagination.

In the early 1900s, he painted the state’s western mountains in a Post-Impressionist style. He exhibited “The Silence of High Noon — Midsummer” (ca.1907–08) at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery in New York in 1909, his first one-man show. In his later years, he aimed to do for Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park what Cézanne did for Mont Sainte-Victoire in Aix-en-Provence. Seven painted views, showing seasonal change, close the show and represent the culmination of a lifelong fascination.

In the 1930s, Hartley became increasingly aware of his legacy and strove to not just paint Maine but to “be recognized as Maine’s greatest modern interpreter,” the show’s co-curator, Randall Griffey, writes in the catalog. John Marin (1870-1953), another member of Stieglitz’s circle, gave Hartley heat in 1936 when the Museum of Modern Art gave a solo show to the artist from New Jersey, who also painted the Maine scene.

Hartley proclaimed himself the “painter from Maine” the next year in an exhibition at Stieglitz’s An American Place, and followed up, until 1940, with annual shows of Maine landscapes and more at the Hudson D. Walker Gallery on East 57th Street. As Griffey writes of the first presentation in 1938: “[T]he Hudson Walker exhibition constituted Hartley’s full-fledged entrée into Regionalism, a nativist movement in American art … Regionalism answered the call for cultural rootedness in American art by championing local subject matter as an antidote to imported ideas and aesthetics, namely, European modernism.”

The show at The Met Breuer is a hyper-local collection of rivers, hills, churches, logs and lobster traps. The mountainscapes — and logscapes — are characteristically devoid of people, unlike the Fuji views of Hartley’s heroes Hokusai and Hiroshige, which are sometimes peppered with small figures (eight gorgeous prints are on display).

Hartley’s figures — unnamed working-class types, grouped together in a separate room — loom large, though, and are mostly male, with intimations of homoeroticism. In the catalog, Griffey notes Hartley’s special debt to Cézanne in these late-career paintings. “Flaming American (Swim Champ)” (1939-40) and “Young Seadog with Friend Billy” (a self-portrait, 1942) boast subjects that are bulky and “sit impassively like Madame Cézanne in her many portraits.” The “Lobster Fishermen” (1940-41), meanwhile, “appear descended from Cézanne’s similarly static and similarly plebian card players.”

But the most obvious parallel relates to one of the show’s signature images, “Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach” (1940-41), a hyper-masculine iteration of Cézanne’s iconic “The Bather” (ca. 1885) — two guys in swim trunks, arms akimbo. Per the curator, “Hartley’s male bather … is … more erotically charged, with his bulging pink swim trunks occupying center stage and bisected by the horizon line.”

The artist, who fancied himself the heir to Homer, was making his mark on Maine.