American Art

How Marsden Hartley's 'Pre-War Pageant' Captured the Violence and Grandeur of an Age

By Annikka Olsen

Among the first American artists to adopt an abstract approach to painting, Marsden Hartley pioneered uncharted visual terrain to become one of the great Modernists of the 20th century. This November, Hartley's Pre-War Pageant ( 1913) will become the most important work by the artist to ever appear at auction and is expected to fetch an estimated $30 million in the Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale (12 November, New York). Below, discover the story and symbolism behind of this defining masterpiece.

M arsden Hartley had already begun to make a name for himself when, with financial backing provided by Alfred Stieglitz and Lillie Bliss, he traveled to Paris in 1912. There, Hartley soon became acquainted with the influential collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein, and, more significantly, their collection of modern masterworks – which included paintings and drawings by artists such as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. Moving to Berlin just the next year, Hartley there sought out the Expressionist artists Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. With the influence of such avant-garde artists fresh in his mind, Hartley commenced work on his seminal painting Pre-War Pageant, the title illustrating the pervading sense of imminent conflict in Europe at the time.

A canvas of geometric shapes including triangles and circles in white, yellow, red and blue reminiscent of military medals.
Marsden Hartley, Pre-War Pagent, 1913. Estimated to sell for $30 million in Impressionist & Modern Art Auction (12 November, New York).

Numerous artistic modes are at work within Pre-War Pageant, ranging from Cubism to German Expressionism, all indicative of the art and stylistic movements he had been exposed to in the years prior to its completion. Somewhat unexpected influences are at play within the composition as well, with symbols and themes from Native American culture – shown centrally in the form that could be interpreted as a teepee though also has a number of other meanings – and Mysticism – through recurring eight-pointed stars, which were also present on the Prussian soldiers’ uniforms – appearing within the structure of the painting. The canvas's abstracted depictions of various flags, meanwhile reflected the dominating military culture and pageantry occurring in Berlin at the time.

With its bold use of color and assertive composition, as well as the sculptural effect of the artist-painted frame, Pre-War Pageant is considered one of the earliest American works completed in a purely abstract stylistic vernacular. Hartley’s painting along with as Apokalyptische Landschaft by Ludwig Meidner powerfully illustrate the time and tenor in the years preceding World War I as part of The Beautiful and Damned: Radical Art of the Great War, Sotheby’s commemoration of the artistic genius borne from the turmoil of the age. Presented to the public in this exhibition, 100 years following the end of the First World War, Pre-War Pageant serves as a reminder of the world altering event, as well as its seminal influence on both the development of abstraction, and American painting on a whole. Pre-War Pageant will be exhibited alongside other highlights of the Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale at Sotheby's New York galleries beginning 2 November 2018.

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