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Art and Artists  Africa, Sierra Leone
 Chuck Close
 James Ensor
 Frank Gehry
 Robert Gwathmey
 Marsden Hartley
 Pepón Osorio
 James Rosenquist
 Ernest Whiteman

Inner Worlds What is Art?  Environment  Designing Spaces and Places
Marsden Hartley

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Marsden Hartley
Portrait, about 1914-1915
oil on canvas
32 1/4 x 21 1/2 inches

About the Art

In a letter to Alfred Steiglitz in 1913, Hartley said, "I like the life color of Berlin. It has movement and energy and leans always a little over the edge of the future. . . . It is essentially the center of modern life in Europe. . . . The military adds so much in the way of a sense of perpetual gaiety here in Berlin. It gives the stranger like myself the feeling that some great festival is being celebrated always." To Gertrude Stein he wrote, "There is an interesting source of material here-numbers and shapes and colors that make one wonder and admire. It is essentially a mural, this German way of living-big lines and large masses . . . always a sense of pageantry of living. I like it. . ."

One of Hartley's closest friends in Berlin was with a young German soldier named Karl von Freyburg. On October 7, 1914, von Freyburg was killed in an early battle of World War I. Hartley was very sad about his friend's death and began a series of paintings to express his feelings. The painting Portrait, is from this series that Hartley called the "War Motif" series.

Even though this painting is an abstract arrangement of patterns, numbers, and shapes, it is also a symbolic portrait. You may sense a human form-perhaps wearing the uniform of a German soldier from the early 20th century. The blue circle in the center (perhaps a head?) contains curved white shapes that look like the white feather plumes German soldiers wore on their helmets. The cursive E below the black cross is like a letter sewn on the epaulette (shoulder decoration) of German army uniforms. It also may refer to Hartley's real first name (Edmund). Other designs, such as the red and blue rectangles with curving lines, also resemble German military details. Germany's black, red, and white flag appears to be waving across the center of the painting.

After Hartley died, a friend of his explained the symbols in this painting:

  • The black cross in the lower center refers to The Iron Cross-a medal given to German soldiers for bravery that had been awarded to Karl von Freyburg, shortly before his death.
  • The number 4 beneath the cross is both the number of von Freyburg's regiment in the army and Hartley's house number in Berlin.
  • The number 8 may refer to the eight-pointed stars that Hartley said he saw everywhere in Berlin. It and the number 9 may also refer to Hartley's own code of magical, religious and personal numbers and signs.

Vocabulary Terms

abstract--Art that looks as if it contains little or no recognizable or realistic forms from the physical world. Focus on formal elements such as colors, lines, or shapes. Artists often "abstract" objects by changing, simplifying, or exaggerating what they see.

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Inner Worlds | What is Art? | Environment | Designing Spaces and Places | Identity
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