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Hartley Sets a Record

Word comes that a Marsden Hartley painting, Lighthouse, has been sold at auction at Christie’s for $6.31 million, a record for an American Modernist, as the pioneers of modernist art in this country are known. The previous record was set for a Georgia O’Keeffe painting for slightly less in 2001.Marsden

Here in Maine we count Hartley (1877 - 1943) as one of our own. He was born in Lewiston and at one time worked in a mill there. He went to New York in his twenties and fell in with Stieglitz and the group of artists around Gallery 291, and then went to Europe where met Gertrude and Leo Stein and the artists in their circle. He went to Germany and there fell in love with a German officer who later died in World War I. During those years he made the great nearly-abstract paintings filled with German military symbols that made his reputation. Lighthouse was one of those, recently discovered in a museum in east Germany.

He traveled a lot but spent most of the last years of his life in Maine, painting the blocky, deeply personal works we are  so familiar with. The reputation he gained for the early works evaporated during the anti-German sentiment during World War I and he never really recovered from that. There are plenty of stories of his living the stereotypical life of the impecunious painter, trading paintings for lodging and groceries. Unlike most of the works of most artists, though, his paintings finally did become worth something. I remember the collective intake of breath at an auction in Portland in the early ‘80’s when a painting of his went for $60,000. After the recent Christie’s auction insurance premiums will be going up all over the country.Marsden Hartley - Katahdin< class=

He was a great painter whose work was underappreciated. You can tell how good he was by looking at a few of his many imitators in the current generation who look at his style but not his substance. He worked hard, cared deeply, and found ways to put his whole world into his pictures. I’m glade he’s getting his due, however belatedly.

By Ken Greenleaf

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