Townsend Ludington's probing, insightful biography of Marsden Hartley is the first full-scale work on the life of one of the great American painters of our century. Two weeks after Hartley's death, in 1943, Paul Rosenberg wrote in the Nation that Hartley was an "almost gigantic secondary artist." Now, as time affords us greater perspective on that eruptive period in American art, the first half of the twentieth century, we can see that Hartley was in fact an artist of primary, not secondary, importance. His career encompassed an abundance of phases and fascinations, all of them reflecting his abiding interest in newness and his never-ending quest for his own truth and roots. As Ludington reveals here, Marsden Hartley was a man of many parts: introverted, homosexual, given to great highs and mordant lows, maligned, neglected, and sometimes praised. He was a fine technician, a restless innovator, an intellectual who could theorize brilliantly, yet whose best art often went counter to his theories. And he was an inveterate traveler: after growing up in Maine, he had an early love affair with Paris before going on to live for periods in New York, Berlin, New Mexico, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, Mexico, and finally New England once again. Along the way, he had close if sometimes volatile relationships with many influential figures in American arts and letters, among them Alfred Stieglitz, William Carlos Williams, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Gertrude Stein, and Charles Demuth. And certainly his art itself can be seen to chart a course through a remarkable time of new discoveries and revolutionary ideas. Starting out under the spell of postimpressionism, Hartley absorbed elements of Ryder's idiosyncratic style, European modernism, the Blue Rider school, cubism, and American folk art. But when his own visions emerged--as they did in 1914 with the now famous German-officer paintings--he became noted first for the strong mysticism of his work, with its symbols and numbers, and then later for his quietly intense, iconic portraits of Nova Scotia and Maine fishermen, figures from American history, and those with whom he was intimate. This biography maintains that Hartley was a quintessentially American artist, perhaps because it was in his nature always to search for more and more truthful modes of expression. Marsden Hartley's story has much to teach us about the first decades of our century, a time when, in painting as in the other arts, Americans left behind once and for all their derivative, provincial sensibilities.
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