Painted in 1930.
We are grateful to Gail R. Scott for preparing the following catalogue entry. Scott, a leading Hartley scholar, is author of the monograph Marsden Hartley (1988) and editor of collections of his poetry and his essays on art.
Mountain No. 22 is a prime painting from Marsden Hartley's 1930 excursion to New Hampshire, which took place between late June and early November. Stunning in its bold design and chromatic harmonies, this painting stands out among the nearly thirty oils that comprise the New Hampshire mountain series. The artist skillfully focuses our attention on the Mountain, which is archetypal in its pyramidal shape, boldly accented by the dark outlines of the distant peaks. The palette is both saturated and subtle, with verdant green to ochre in the mountainsides, rich autumnal colors in the foreground trees, and a brilliant cerulean sky billowing with dense, white clouds.
The year 1930 was pivotal for Marsden Hartley, marking an initial step in what would prove to be a protracted return to his native New England. Born in Lewiston, Maine in 1877, Hartley had spent the first decade of his career (1900-1911) painting most summers and a few winters among the hills and mountains along on the edge of Kezar Lake on Maine's western border near the rural towns of Lovell and North and Center Lovell in a region that is directly on the eastern side of the same mountains he would paint in 1930. Conditions in those early years were rugged, even harsh at times. Living on next to nothing in derelict houses or rough buildings, he nevertheless accomplished a prodigious number of ecstatic mountain paintings in all weathers and seasons. By 1912 though, he'd had enough of that life and of Maine and turned his sights to Europe and its explosive art scene. Other than brief visits to family or friends, he did not paint the landscape of New England again until 1930 but chose to live and work in far-flung places, including the American Southwest, Mexico, Paris, and Germany. Still not quite ready for Maine in 1930, he turned instead to New Hampshire as he tested the waters near home turf.
In part Hartley's return was propelled by complaints—both from his long-time dealer, Alfred Stieglitz and from adverse reviews of his exhibition at Stieglitz's Intimate Gallery in January 1929. At the time of this exhibition, Hartley was still on his long sojourn in Europe (he had been there since 1922), hopping from Paris to Germany to Italy, but based primarily in Aix-en-Provence. There he apprenticed himself in spirit to Cézanne whose example in both still life and landscape inspired him as he honed his design and compositional skills. But in letters, Stieglitz scolded him for his long absence that was detrimental to sales, urging him to return home because American collectors wanted American subjects. Devastated and anguishing with worry that he was a "wearisome millstone" around Stieglitz's neck, Hartley vowed not to exhibit any more "foreign landscapes" and turned instead to still life and flower paintings."[i] Smarting from the critiques but bending to the realities of his situation, he began to turn away from things French and to plan his return. Having just seen a Gustav Courbet exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris, he told Rebecca Strand that "only a Courbet could like savage landscape and what they call 'savage' here is quite tame for me." He therefore decided to return home where he could get "into some really wild places."[ii] And, as if needing to repeatedly assert his American-ness, he wrote a few months later from his house near Aix, ". . .I never feel or have felt so downright New England as I do this very minute sitting in my kitchen by the stove and how strongly I feel those inviolable elements that never leave one. . ."[iii]
He finally returned to the U.S. in March 1930 where he lived with friends in Brooklyn while planning his summer painting sojourn to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In June, with the promise of verdant summer landscapes and the companionship of a Polish friend who had a Ford, he embarked for the north country. They quickly settled into a rented farmhouse, which was, as he described in a letter, situated "in a very pretty valley on the banks of the Amanoosa [Ammonoosuc River], adding wryly, "I am alive and established in the wilds of New England – almost as if I had never been away – living exactly as I lived over 20 yrs ago up at North Lovell in the better end of a deserted farm house – where five rooms are very livable – that is for indoor camping."[iv] The Ford, with his Polish friend as chauffeur, enabled Hartley (who never owned a car and probably had no driver's license) to seek out the mountain views he preferred. Within weeks he had zeroed in on a half-dozen mountain, river, and cascade motifs which now comprise his distinctive New Hampshire series: the mountain above Beaver Lake in the Lost River Region; Franconia Notch; a particular turn of the Little River with large boulders; Kinsman Falls; Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Washington in the Presidential range; and—most importantly for our purposes—Mt. Moosilauke. At an elevation of 4800, Mt. Moosilauke is average in height for the White Mountain range, but for Hartley it was "one great beauty . . . almost an exact pyramid and so mystic . . . and affable in appearance."[v]
Hartley ascribed numbers but very few specific titles to the New Hampshire canvases (though the numerical system is broken in places and does not necessarily follow the chronology of his time there). With its deep, lush greens, for instance, Landscape No. 35 (Fig. 1) was painted early in the season. Most of the series' descriptive titles, like Franconia Notch, Mt. Lafayette, New Hampshire, were probably attributed later, either by him for specific exhibitions or by later dealers, museums, or scholars. Like most of the New Hampshire series, Mountains No.22 is large in size (most are 30 x 36 inches) but compositionally simple—a scale and format that lend monumentality and iconic stature to the mountain image.
With its gradations of green to gold on the receding slopes, Mountain No.22 must have been painted as summer waned into fall. In fact, in August, Hartley related to Rebecca Strand that "...the summer is half over & the best part will begin soon – the autumn & the weather is simply heavenly just now – the last two days have been exhibition cloud days. I have never in my life seen such ones." The white clouds in Mountains No. 22 are so characteristically Hartley—so solidly dominating the sky—that they were no doubt painted on one of these "exhibition cloud days" when cumulus formations raced across the New England summer sky.
During the period of transition from the verdant greens of summer to what he hoped would be the "ruby tinge" of autumn, Hartley felt as though he would "turn to stone," so he took up "other employment" and hiked throughout the region. He observed, however, that ". . . when I'm on top I don't care at all for there's nothing about these mountains I don't know from below and they can never surprise or excite me." Moreover, Hartley was dismayed and scornful of how the State of New Hampshire had sold out to the tourist trade and railed against the flocks of vista-seekers who interrupted his work. Getting out of their cars and peering over his shoulder "in fours and five," they "squint a little" at the scenic view "& send a postal card home..." In this "hell-hole of the nouveau-rich and parvenu," he despaired of anyone understanding that what he was trying to do was to "dig [his] way through into the significance of nature."
Digging his way into the significance of nature had been and would continue to be Hartley's great gift and achievement as a modernist innovator. Throughout his career, the starring role in that effort to get inside the psyche of nature and express it outwardly in paint was the mountain—whether it was Speckled Mountain in Maine (1906-09); the vibrant red or chocolate mountains of the Southwest (1918-19); Mont Ste. Victoire; the volcanoes of Mexico (1932-33); the Bavarian Alps (1933-34); or what became for him the ultimate mountain experience, his native Mt. Katahdin in Maine (1939-42).[vi]
Having only months before swung across the Atlantic from his extended study of Mont Ste. Victoire in Aix-en-Provence to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Hartley's palette and handling of paint are noteworthy for their differences. Dominant hues in each series derive from the geological terrain and quality of light in the two locales. Executed under the mantle of Cézanne, Hartley's Mont Ste. Victoire paintings of 1929 (Fig. 2) range from subtle pink to flaming orange and luminescent yellow, with sharp, angular shadows and crevices in deep blue and purple—a "burst of too obvious coloration . . . on the hot side of the spectrum" as one critic observed.[vii] The brushwork is equally bold, rendered visibly and vigorously in broad, angled strokes. The final effect is like a visionary apotheosis of Cézanne's mountain.
By contrast, Hartley seems to have come back to planet earth with the New Hampshire paintings. In Mountain No. 22 he seems less interested in dramatizing the chromatic scale (despite the beginnings of an autumnal display in the foreground trees) and more intent on conveying the solid substance of his native turf. Perhaps it was just as well that, as he put it, that the fall colors were anticlimactic and "rusted out." Mountain No. 22, like the other 1930 canvases is bright, capturing the quality of light of a quintessential New England summer day but wholly different from the strident light and color of the Mont Ste. Victoire paintings. Likewise his brushstroke in Mountain No. 22 is still bold but more measured and uniform than in the 1929 series.
As so often the case, creative expression ignites under the tension of struggle or duress. Such was Hartley's experience in 1930. Despite his doubts and fears of returning to America, he was able to successfully translate the lessons learned from Cézanne under the shadow of Mont Ste. Victoire to American landscape subjects. And despite his complaints about tourists and boredom and isolation in rural towns and his disappointment with the autumn colors, the New Hampshire paintings are more authentic and true to his native spirit than any mountain paintings since those from Maine at the beginning of his career. Mountain No. 22—monumental in composition and vibrant but subtle in its chromatic sensibility—heralds a new maturity and mastery in Hartley's work.
[i] Hartley letter to Rebecca Strand from Aix, 3 April 1929 and letter to Adelaide Kuntz, 13 May 1929 9 (Archives of American Art, hereafter AAA).
[ii] Hartley to Rebecca Strand from Paris, 6 March 1929 (AAA).
[iii] Hartley to Rebecca Strand, 19 November 1929 (AAA).
[iv] Hartley Rebecca Strand from Franconia, NH, 4 July 1930 (AAA). Unless otherwise noted, the remainder of quotes by Hartley are all from letters to Rebecca Strand that summer (July to October).
[v] While Mt. Moosilauke does have a broad triangular shape, it is actually Mt. Lafayette or Mt. Liberty that are most sharply pyramidal.
[vi] See Jeanne Hokin, Pinnacles and Pyramids. Albuquerque NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1993 for an in-depth analysis on Hartley's mountain paintings.
[vii] "Exhibitions in New York, Marsden Hartley, An American Place," Art News, 29 (December 1930):56.
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