Biography of Marsden Hartley, Modernist American Painter and Writer

Marsden Hartley
Maria Vivat / Getty Images

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) was an American modernist painter. His embrace of Germany during World War I and the regionalist subject matter of his late-career work caused contemporary critics to dismiss the value of much of his painting. Today, Hartley's importance in the development of modernism and expressionism in American art is recognized.

Fast Facts: Marsden Hartley

  • Known For: Painter
  • Styles: Modernism, Expressionism, Regionalism
  • Born: January 4, 1877 in Lewiston, Maine
  • Died: September 2, 1943 in Ellsworth, Maine
  • Education: Cleveland Institute of Art
  • Selected Works: "Portrait of a German Officer" (1914), "Handsome Drinks" (1916), "Lobster Fishermen" (1941)
  • Notable Quote: "A reaction, to be pleasant, must be simple."

Early Life and Career

The youngest of nine children, Edmund Hartley spent his first years in Lewiston, Maine, and lost his mother at age 8. It was a profound event in his life, and he later said, "I was to know complete isolation from that moment forward." A child of English immigrants, he looked to nature and the writing of transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau for comfort.

The Hartley family split apart in the wake of the death of their mother. Edmund, who would later adopt Marsden, the surname of his stepmother, as his first name, was sent to live with his older sister in Auburn, Maine. After most of his family moved to Ohio, Hartley stayed behind to work in a shoe factory at age 15.

A year later, Hartley rejoined his family and began studies at the Cleveland School of Art. One of the trustees of the institution recognized talent in the young student and gave Marsden a five-year stipend to study with the artist William Merritt Chase in New York at the National Academy of Design.

young American artists 1911
Young American Modernists of 1911 including Marsden Hartley back left. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A close friendship with the seascape painter Albert Pinkham Ryder influenced the direction of Hartley's art. He embraced the creation of paintings as a spiritual experience. After meeting Ryder, Hartley created some of the most somber and dramatic works of his career. The "Dark Mountain" series shows nature as a powerful, brooding force.

After spending three years back in Lewiston, Maine, teaching painting and immersing himself in nature, Hartley returned to New York City in 1909. There, he met photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and they quickly became friends. Hartley became part of a circle that included painter Charles Demuth and photographer Paul Strand. Stieglitz also encouraged Hartley to study the work of European modernists Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse.

Career in Germany

After Stieglitz arranged a successful exhibition for Hartley in New York in 1912, the young painter traveled to Europe for the first time. There, he met Gertrude Stein and her network of avant-garde artists and writers. Stein purchased four of his paintings, and Hartley soon met expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky and members of the German expressionist painting group Der Blaue Reiter, including Franz Marc.

The German artists, in particular, had a profound impact on Marsden Hartley. He soon embraced the expressionistic style. He moved to Berlin in 1913. Many researchers believe that Hartley soon developed a romantic relationship with Prussian army lieutenant Karl von Freyburg, the cousin of German sculptor Arnold Ronnebeck.

German military uniforms and parades fascinated Hartley and found their way into his paintings. He wrote to Stieglitz, "I have lived rather gayly in the Berlin fashion, with all that implies." Von Freyburg died in a battle in 1914, and Hartley painted "Portrait of a German Officer" in his honor. Due to the artist's intense protection of his private life, few details are known about his relationship with von Freyburg.

Marsden Hartley Himmel
"Himmel" (1915). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

"Himmel," painted in 1915, is an excellent example of both the style and subject matter of Hartley's painting while in Germany. The influence of the bold poster style of friend Charles Demuth is apparent. The word "Himmel" means "heaven" in German. The painting includes the world upright and then an upside-down "Holle" for "hell." The statue in the lower right is Anthony Gunther, the Count of Oldenburg.

Marsden Hartley returned to the United States in 1915 during World War I. Art patrons rejected much of his work due to the anti-German sentiment of the country during the war. They interpreted his subject matter as indicative of a pro-German bias. With historical and cultural distance, the German symbols and regalia are seen as more of a personal response to the loss of von Freyburg. Hartley responded to the rejection by traveling extensively to Maine, California, and Bermuda.

Painter of Maine

The next two decades of Marsden Hartley's life included short periods living in various locations around the world. He returned to New York in 1920 and then moved back to Berlin in 1921. In 1925, Hartley relocated to France for three years. After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1932 to fund a year of painting outside of the United States, he moved to Mexico.

One particular relocation, in the mid-1930s, had a profound impact on Marsden Hartley's late-career work. He lived in Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia, with the Mason family. The landscapes and family dynamic entranced Hartley. He was present for the tragic drowning death of the family's two sons and a cousin in 1936. Some art historians believe that Hartley had a romantic relationship with one of the sons. The emotion connected with the event resulted in a focus on still lifes and portraits.

Marsden Hartley Lobster Fishermen
"Lobster Fishermen" (1941). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In 1941, Hartley returned to live in his home state of Maine. His health began to decline, but he was immensely productive in his final years. Hartley declared that he wanted to be the "Painter of Maine." His painting of "Lobster Fishermen" shows a commonplace activity in Maine. The rugged brushstrokes and thick outlining of the human figures show the ongoing influence of German expressionism.

Mount Katahdin, in the northern region of Maine, was a favorite landscape subject. He also painted solemn depictions of family religious occasions.

During his lifetime, many art critics interpreted Hartley's late-career paintings that depict locker room and beach scenes with sometimes shirtless men in shorts and skimpy swim trunks as examples of a new pro-American allegiance in the artist. Today, most recognize them as a willingness on Hartley's part to more openly explore his homosexuality and feelings toward the men in his life.

Marsden Hartley died quietly of heart failure in 1943.

Writing Career

In addition to his painting, Marsden Hartley left an extensive legacy of writing that included poems, essays, and short stories. He published the collection Twenty-Five Poems in 1923. The short story, "Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy" explores Hartley's experiences living with the Mason family in Nova Scotia. It mainly focuses on the grief Hartley experienced after the drowning of the Mason sons.


Marsden Hartley was a key modernist in the 20th-century development of American painting. He created works influenced strongly by European expressionism. The style ultimately became total expressionist abstraction in the 1950s.

Marsden Hartley Handsome Drinks
"Handsome Drinks" (1916). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Two aspects of Hartley's subject matter alienated him from many art scholars. First, was his embrace of German subject matter while the United States fought World War I against Germany. The second was Hartley's homoerotic references in his later work. Finally, his shift toward regionalist work in Maine caused some observers to question Hartley's overall seriousness as an artist.

In more recent years, Marsden Hartley's reputation has grown. One clear sign of his influence on young artists was the 2015 show in New York at the Driscoll Babcock Galleries in which seven contemporary artists displayed paintings that responded to key works in Hartley's career.


  • Griffey, Randall R. Marsden Hartley's Maine. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017.
  • Kornhauser, Elizabeth Mankin. Marsden Hartley: American Modernist. Yale University Press, 2003.
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Lamb, Bill. "Biography of Marsden Hartley, Modernist American Painter and Writer." ThoughtCo, Aug. 2, 2021, Lamb, Bill. (2021, August 2). Biography of Marsden Hartley, Modernist American Painter and Writer. Retrieved from Lamb, Bill. "Biography of Marsden Hartley, Modernist American Painter and Writer." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 27, 2023).