Marsden Hartley was one of a circle of American painters that included Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Arthur Dove, and Charles Demuth, all artists collected enthusiastically by Duncan Phillips. Hartley’s broad range of subjects and varied styles reflect not only his changing artistic aims, but also the effects of his numerous travels to Europe, Mexico, Bermuda, and Nova Scotia. A constant for the artist, though, was his love for the rugged environment of his home state, Maine. Born in Lewiston, Maine, as Edmund Hartley in 1877, he spent his youth in the care of an aunt. In 1893 he moved to Cleveland to join his father and stepmother, Martha Marsden, whose surname he adopted as his first name. Hartley received a scholarship to the Cleveland School of Art in 1898 and demonstrated such talent that he was awarded a five-year stipend to study art in New York. From 1899 to 1900 he took classes at William Merritt Chase's New York School of Art, and he attended the National Academy of Design from 1900 to 1904, painting landscapes in Maine during the summers. In Maine and New York, Hartley painted landscapes and still-lifes that reflect the influence of Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, artists with whom he became familiar through his studies and contacts in avant-garde circles in New York.
Alfred Stieglitz gave Hartley his first New York solo exhibition at his 291 Gallery in 1909 and a second successful show in 1912 that enabled Hartley to travel to Europe, where he remained until 1915. He spent time in Paris, London, Munich, and Berlin, meeting many of the European modernist artists, painting abstractions, and exhibiting with the Der Blaue Reiter group at the 1913 Herbstsalon, the First German Autumn Salon, in Berlin. In Germany, Hartley painted bold, emblematic abstractions that revealed his fascination with Germany’s military regalia and American Indian motifs. Returning to New York, Hartley continued his association with the more progressive painters there. He traveled frequently, producing still lifes and landscapes, his two main subjects, in such places as Bermuda and New Mexico. During this time, he also wrote critical essays, which were published in his book Adventures in the Arts in 1921. Coming back to New York, he auctioned 117 of his paintings at Anderson Galleries, which enabled him to return to Europe, where he stayed until 1930. He again traveled widely, painting Cézanne-inspired landscapes and still lifes in France, Austria, Italy, and Germany. From 1932 to 1933, he traveled in Mexico on a Guggenheim Fellowship, followed by a one-year stay in Germany. During these travels, Hartley found inspiration in the landscape, expressing the spiritual essence of nature, a theme he had explored for three decades. Except for trips to Nova Scotia (1935 and 1936), he lived in New York until 1937, when he had his last Stieglitz-organized exhibition.
From this point forward, Maine became Hartley’s permanent home, where he wrote poetry and created powerful landscapes and figure paintings inspired by the people and rugged coast and mountains of Maine. Duncan Phillips, who had sporadically bought Hartley's work since 1921, purchased six oils between 1939 and 1943, a time when the artist was ill, weak, and impoverished. Even at the end of his life, he continued to work in the remoteness of Maine; Hartley never lost his formal power and uncompromising sense of realism. He died in Ellsworth, Maine in 1943.