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