Early Abstract and Modernist Painting

Marsden Hartley (1877–1943)

Painting No. 50, 1914–15

Oil on canvas, 47 x 47 in. (119.4 x 119.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.61

The pioneering modernist painter Marsden Hartley created robust landscapes, still lifes, figural images, and abstract compositions. Influenced by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and inspired by American gallerist and photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), Hartley produced paintings that include both familiar and cryptic symbols and combine cubist and expressionist elements. Painting No. 50 is part of the artist’s Amerika series, painted while he lived in Berlin on the eve of and early in World War I (1914–18). It contains general references to Native American culture—a tipi and canoes—as well as military symbols. Striking primary colors and bold patterning play an important role in the composition’s hieratic, symmetrical structure. By conveying a sense of national identity as well as the artist’s familiarity with contemporary modernist movements, the painting confirms Hartley’s status as a German art community insider while hinting at his isolation as an American expatriate.

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Dieter Scholz

Curator of Modern Art, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany

“Caveman expression” is how Marsden Hartley described the paintings he exhibited in a Berlin gallery next to the Brandenburg Gate in October 1915.1 Among them was Painting No. 50, a work executed in Berlin as one in a series employing Native American motifs. Just as European artists had looked to folk traditions and non-Western cultures in their pursuit of an imagined, “primitive” authenticity—Franz Marc (1880–1916) labeled painters like himself “The ‘Savages’ of Germany”2—Hartley turned to his home continent and its native people, whose artifacts he equated to prehistoric European cave painting.

In November 1914 Hartley had written to his New York art dealer Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), “I find myself wanting to be an Indian.”3 Born in Maine and raised in the East, he had had no direct contact with Native American culture, and it was not until he went abroad that it came to interest him, mainly through German colleagues such as August Macke (1887–1914), who had painted scenes with tipis and native riders on horseback.

In Painting No. 50, the tip of a white tipi pierces a black circle and meets that of a downward-pointing golden triangle. Below this juncture, the tipi’s open flaps reveal a red double-pointed oval within which an arrowhead points upward, touching a circle divided in eight. The structure is similar to one in Indian Composition (c. 1914, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie, New York), but there the pointed oval contains a Christian cross, a starburst, and birds—symbols of the Holy Trinity. What might be a sexual allusion in Painting No. 50 is recast as religious symbolism, a switch indicative of the multiplicity of meanings embedded in Hartley’s devices.

In Hartley’s personal iconography, the golden triangle stands for the male bonding between himself, the German sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck (1885–1947), and the Prussian officer Karl von Freyburg (1889–1914), whom Hartley idolized. More ambiguous are the large arced shapes that might be insect wings, canoes, or abstracted airplane wings. The yellow and blue “wing” at upper left harbors a small blue and red symbol that seems to represent an airplane. Two white crosses on the left red wing suggest German insignia, while the partial black-red concentric circle above them resembles a French military cockade—a Franco-German aerial dogfight? The divided white circle may stand for the eight-pointed star on Prussian military uniforms, or for the Buddhist dharmachakra, whose spokes allude to the Noble Eightfold Path.

This syncretism is characteristic of Hartley: he gives us an abstract composition whose decorative flatness borrows from Native American textiles and painted skins, whose bilateral symmetry was inspired by religious and esoteric symbolism, and whose mode of painting is indebted to modernism. Hartley made manifest what Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) called the “combinations of the abstract with the objective,”4 which he argued were essential to “inner resonance.”5

  1. Marsden Hartley, letter to Alfred Stieglitz, Berlin, November 8, 1915, in My Dear Stieglitz: Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz 1912–1915, ed. James Timothy Voorhies (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), 201. ↩︎

  2. Franz Marc, “Die ‘Wilden’ Deutschlands,” in Der Blaue Reiter, ed. Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc (Munich: R. Piper, 1912), 5–7. ↩︎

  3. Marsden Hartley, letter to Alfred Stieglitz, Berlin, November 12, 1914, ibid., 172. ↩︎

  4. Wassily Kandinsky, “Über die Formfrage,” ibid., 97. ↩︎

  5. Ibid., 80, 86, 88. ↩︎