Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)
Marsden Hartley was born in Maine, but escaped what was apparently a bleak early childhood when his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Here he began his education as an artist, ultimately echoing the careers of other American artists of his time by going to Europe to study. He was throughout his life a restless, enigmatic figure, and became one of the most important modernist painters in America.
Always deeply ambivalent about his sexual orientation, Hartley was an active part of gay artistic circles both in the U.S. and abroad. His German boyfriend died in World War I and his Maine boyfriend drowned. These tragedies became subjects of his art and no doubt contributed to his ambivalent feelings. His ambivalence speaks poignantly of the harsh realities of his time—the stark contrast between his private world in which homosexuality was accepted and the public one where it was condemned.
The museums that acquired Hartley’s work during his lifetime had no inkling of his sexuality or the role it may have played in his art — something not publicly known or discussed until the 1970s. Surely when the Museum used Felix Fuld’s bequest funds to purchase Hartley’s splendid Mt. Ktaadn, First Snow #2 in 1940, it was his importance as a modernist and a painter of the Maine landscape that impressed the trustees. Of the five Hartley paintings in the Museum’s collection, two are on view, including Mt. Ktaadn . Aside from its appeal as a modern picture, its evocation of America’s nineteenth-century landscape tradition) gives this painting a deep resonance for Newark’s collection (ninety years earlier, Frederic Church also painted Mt. Ktaadn, an iconic peak in Maine, Hartley’s childhood home.
Another great Hartley work, Still Life—Calla Lilies (1920), a bequest of Cora Hartshorn in 1958, is currently traveling in the exhibition Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
For the LGBT community today, Hartley is important not so much as a figure of cultural pride, but as a reminder of a world in which civil rights were routinely denied by public attitudes, and in which living an open and honest life was, for most, very difficult indeed.
– By Ulysses Dietz, Senior Curator and Curator of Decorative Arts
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