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Hartley goes home

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MARSDEN Hartley (1877-1943) was never more than knee-deep into modernism. It wasn't that he didn't try, especially as a young man, or that some of his early pieces weren't successful in a generally abstract way. Neither was it a matter of ignorance or lack of sophistication. It's just that, try as he might to fashion a modernist style entirely his own, it always ended up looking at least a little bit like someone else's. At times, what he produced resembled some of C'ezanne's landscapes and still lifes; at other times, the canvases of Matisse, Kandinsky, the Cubists, or some of the German Expressionists. Most of his pictures were well painted, and almost all had an expressive or decorative impact that was quite impressive. But these early paintings were never really special enough to stamp their creator as a fully committed modernist. For one thing, they were a bit too ornamental. For another, they had the look of work by someone ``shopping around'' for a style to appropriate and then to modify slightly to accommodate his own formal purposes.

But that should come as no surprise. Hartley was only doing what most younger artists do while searching for what they really want to ``say'' and for the manner in which they can best say it. His search took him to various parts of the United States, to Europe -- which in some ways became his second home after World War I -- and to Mexico, Bermuda, and Nova Scotia. In the 1920s, C'ezanne's influence began to bear serious fruit in a series of landscapes of New Mexico and Mont Ste.-Victoire in France which, despite their debt to the French painter's formalist vision, exist primarily as strong personal pictorial statements.

By the early 1930s, Hartley's mature style was well on its way to full realization, and by 1936, in such canvases as ``The Old Bars, Dogtown,'' and ``The Last Stone Walls, Dogtown,'' the blunt, deeply expressive approach to painting for which he would soon be famous was solidly in place.

Only one more thing needed to be done before the Marsden Hartley whom later generations would know best could come into focus, and this was to return to his home state of Maine. This was accomplished in 1937. It meant not only that he had gone back to his roots but also that he had finally stripped his art of everything that was not essential for its creation.

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