Happy Birthday to American Modernist Painter Marsden Hartley

Today we celebrate the birthday of painter Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), whose “Painting, Number 5” (1914–1915) appears on the Modern Art in America 1913–1931 stamp sheet.


Born in Lewiston, Maine, Hartley viewed art as a spiritual quest. After attending the Cleveland School of Art, he went to New York to further his studies. There he became friends with photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, who showed Hartley’s work and pulled him into a circle of other American artists that included Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Arthur Dove, and Charles Demuth—all of whom are featured on the Modern Art in America stamp sheet.

Attracted by trends in modern European art, such as the bright colors used by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso’s simplified forms, Hartley went to Europe in 1912, traveling to France before moving on to Germany. From November 1914 through the following autumn, he painted a series of works sometimes called the German Officer paintings, which eulogize a young German officer, killed in the early months of the war, for whom Hartley had romantic feelings. These paintings—seen as celebrations of German militarism and understandably unpopular in America at the time—are now counted as among Hartley’s best.

“Painting, Number 5” is from this series. It is an abstract composite portrait of Karl von Freyburg, the young officer who had been killed. Symbols related to his identity and personal life are combined like puzzle pieces; the checkered pattern is a reference to the game of chess, which von Freyburg enjoyed playing. The painting is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

The Modern Art in America stamp sheet is currently available for pre-order. Click the image for details.

The Modern Art in America stamp sheet is currently available for pre-order. Click the image for details.

Seldom at home anywhere, Hartley spent time abroad in Germany, Mexico, and other countries. Later in life, he returned to Maine, where he painted a series of views of Mount Katahdin. Other late works include portraits of the Mason family with whom he stayed in Nova Scotia. For Hartley, they embodied dignity and faith in the face of tragedy. “Adelard the Drowned, Master of the ‘Phantom,’” circa 1938-39, portrays a Mason son who was drowned at sea. Some critics consider Hartley’s late work his best. A startling painting from 1939, “Sustained Comedy,” presents a surprisingly contemporary portrait.

The Modern Art in America 1913–1931 stamp sheet will be released later this year. A release date has not yet been set.

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