Edmund Marsden Hartley was born in Lewiston, Maine in 1877. He died in Ellsworth, Maine in 1943.
Marsden Hartley was one of the finest exponents of pure Expressionist painting. He was influenced during his early career by Impressionism, by the stark unnerving reality of Albert Pinkham Ryder, as well as by the pre-Cubist integrity of Cezanne. To fully understand Hartley, one must understand his penchant for assimilation and distillation of artistic impulse. Hartley observed, made note of, absorbed images and gestures. He stored these in the cabinet of his mind and sifted through them time and again. His obsession with symbolism, with mystical meaning and attachment, enhanced this dependence on observation for its own sake, and supported his life-long posture as an outsider and his detachment from human relationships - except those realized through the veil of his art.
For most of his adult life Hartley experimented with prose and poetry. He sought secondary and sometimes primary expression through his writing, particularly during dry spells when the painting wasn't working, or, as is the case with Cleophas and His Own, when the immensity of a particular human experience transcended the limitations of expression through paint and canvas alone.
Like all true autodidacts of refined sensibility, Hartley experimented continually, turning over ideas again and again in his mind and revisiting these ideas on canvas as well as on paper. One is put in mind of Mozart, absent-mindedly folding and refolding his napkin at table...processing each possible fold as creative nuance, through some sort of magical free association.
This artistic process was put to its true test and best use after the drowning of the Mason boys and their cousin on September 19, 1936. For the last seven years of Hartley's life, he painted and repainted the members of the Mason family and wrote poems to their memory. In revisiting the great tragedy of the drowning and the cruel bent of the sea - while resting, seven years later, in the parallel comfort of the home of the Young family in Corea, Maine - Hartley still memorialized, fretted about, and, above all, distilled this experience to its ultimate conclusion. For on Hartley's easel, the day he died, in 1943, was an unfinished painting with five fully-visible and stylized roses - one for each member of the Mason family.
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