Born in Lewiston, Maine, Marsden Hartley moved with his parents to Cleveland in 1892, where he attended classes at the Cleveland Art Institute. After settling in New York in 1898, he studied under William Merritt Chase and later at the National Academy of Design, but his style was most greatly affected by Albert Pinkham Ryder and the Impressionist Giovanni Segantini. He had his first one man show at Stieglitz's "291 " gallery in 1909. Through "291," he was introduced to the art of Cezanne and Picasso, whose ideas on structure he readily absorbed. While living abroad in Paris and Berlin from 1912 to 1915, his style was redirected toward abstraction by the influence of Kandinsky, Franz Marc and the Fauves.
At the age of 22, he moved to New York City where he attended the National Academy of Design and studied painting with William Merritt Chase. A great admirer of Albert Pinkham Ryder, Hartley would visit Ryder's studio in Greenwich Village as often as possible. While in New York, he came to the attention of Alfred Stieglitz and became associated with Stieglitz' 291 Gallery Group. He was in the cultural vanguard, in the same milieu as Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, Charles Demuth, Georgia O'Keefe, Fernand Leger, Ezra Pound, among many others. His painting Portrait of a German Officer, was an ode to Karl von Freyburg, a Prussian lieutenant with whom he became enamored before his death in World War I.
Marsden Hartley traveled throughout the USA and Europe in the early years of the 20th century. Considered an early modernist Hartley was a nomadic painter for much of his life. He painted from Maine to Massachusetts, in New Mexico, California, New York and Western Europe. Finally after spending many years away from his native state, he returned to Maine towards the end of his life. He wanted to become "the painter of Maine" and depict American life at a local level. In this way, he is a member of the regionalists, a group of artists from the early 20th century that attempted to represent a distinctly "American art"
Hartley is an icon among painters. He is considered one of the foremost American painters of the first half of the 20th century. He was also a fine poet, essayist and writer. His written work continues to resonate with us today.
Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy is a story based on two periods he spent in 1935 and 1936 with the Mason family in the Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia fishing community of East Point Island. Hartley, then in his late 50s, found there both an innocent, unrestrained love and the sense of home he had been seeking since his unhappy childhood in Maine. The impact of this rich experience lasted until his death in 1943, widening the scope of his mature work which included numerous portrayals of the Masons, of whom he wrote: "Five magnificent chapters out of an amazing, human book, these beautiful human beings, loving, tender, strong, courageous, dutiful, kind, so like the salt of the sea, the grit of the earth, the sheer face of the cliff." In Cleophas and His Own, written in Nova Scotia in the fall of 1936 and re-printed in Marsden Hartley and Nova Scotia, Hartley expresses his immense grief at the tragic drowning of the Mason‘s sons. The independent filmmaker, Michael Maglaras, has created a feature film Cleophas and His Own, released in 2005, which uses a personal testament by Hartley as its screenplay.
He worked in Provincetown, Maine, New Mexico, California and New York before returning to Europe in 1921. By 1920 Hartley's painting had become increasingly representational. His later landscapes, endowed with a rustic power, express a strong romantic attachment to his native land. He returned to America in 1930 and traveled extensively while working mostly in Maine. In addition to painting, Hartley also composed poetry and wrote on modern art.