Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) Birch Grove, Autumn 12 x 12in (30.5 x 30.5cm) (Painted in 1910.)

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Lot 15
Marsden Hartley
Birch Grove, Autumn 12 x 12in (30.5 x 30.5cm)

Sold for US$ 500,075 inc. premium

American Art

19 Nov 2019, 16:00 EST

New York

Property from The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Sold to Benefit the Acquisitions Fund
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)
Birch Grove, Autumn
oil on board
12 x 12in (30.5 x 30.5cm)
Painted in 1910.


  • Provenance
    The artist.
    Alfred Stieglitz, New York, acquired from the above.
    Lee Simonson, acquired from the above, circa 1920s.
    Acquired by the present owner by bequest from the above, 1967.

    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Recent Acquisitions: Painting and Sculpture, January 18-September 2, 1968, p. 1.
    New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Marsden Hartley, March 4-August 3, 1980, pp. 23, 212, no. 7, pl. 5, illustrated.
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Drawn in America, 1898-1945, November 1, 1990-March 5, 1991.
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, A Century of American Drawings: From the Collection, May 23-September 17, 1996.

    A. Legg, M.B. Smalley, Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988, p. 50.

    The present work will be included in Gail R. Scott's Marsden Hartley Legacy Project: The Complete Paintings and Works on Paper with Bates College Museum of Art.

    Marsden Hartley experienced a significant breakthrough in his artistic expression in the summer through autumn months of 1910. Over the previous four years, Hartley's landscape works had evolved from Impressionistic to Post-Impressionistic in style. Several key influences from artistic circles in New York in early-1910 triggered the artist's further evolution, his experimentation with new painting techniques and a shift towards abstraction. Returning to his home state of Maine with renewed vigor, the small body of work Hartley painted in 1910 included some of arguably the most modern and abstract compositions yet to be painted in the United States. Birch Grove, Autumn is stylistically a vigorous and vibrant work from this period of heightened inspiration and expression. The present work's composition features the natural elements—dominant mountains with weighty clouds above—and brilliant colors of the autumn season that Hartley would return to depicting for decades throughout his travels, from France to the American Southwest. Maine, however, would continue to be Hartley's most constant landscape subject. In Maine he felt a strong sense of spirituality and emotions that were reflected in his work, from dark and moody to bright and vivacious, and resulted in expressively powerful works including Birch Grove, Autumn.

    Hartley maintained a lifelong connection to New England. Born in Lewiston, Maine, in 1877, the formative years of his career kept Hartley living and working in Maine intermittently between various artistic explorations of the Eastern Coast. In 1899, he studied at the Chase School (New York School of Art) where he attended lectures by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), who promoted an expressive and painterly style of brushwork. Concerned about the school's high tuition, he transferred to the National Academy of Design the following year and would remain there for four years, spending the summers in Maine. One of Hartley's early influences was found in a magazine in 1903, where he saw images of the work of the Italian, Post-Impressionist painter Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899), who painted in broken, stitch-like brushstrokes that were interwoven. The influence of this technique can be found in Hartley's early landscapes from Maine that were Impressionistic, their brushwork airy. The foregrounds and backgrounds also began to blend into flattened spaces with a more modern sensibility.

    While pursuing his artistic training and endeavors, Hartley was also interested in spirituality, from his devout religious beliefs to the philosophical writings of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). A curiosity in the transcendental and mystical qualities of nature would continue to inform his work. Hartley wrote of the awe-inspiring, spiritual qualities he felt about mountains specifically, which became a predominant subject in his oeuvre including the present work, "Mountains are things, entities of a grandiose character, and the one who understands them best is the one who can suffer them best and respect their profound loneliness." (in an unpublished essay, as quoted in B. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1980, p. 17)

    In the spring of 1909, Hartley met the photographer and significant New York gallerist Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). Stieglitz had been prepared to close his gallery for the summer, but he changed his mind upon seeing Hartley's work and weeks later opened a show of his landscapes. This was the first one-man show of an American's work at Stieglitz's 291 gallery. While it was not a financially successful show, for an artist who often worked in isolation in New England, the relationships and education Hartley would garner from this introduction into Stieglitz's circle of artists was immensely influential on his development. Bruce Robertson wrote on the significance of Stieglitz to the artist's career that "besides his acting as Hartley's dealer on and off for almost thirty years, was that Stieglitz turned Hartley decisively away from his lingering sentimental Post-Impressionist manner and lit in him a fire to complete on an international stage with the leading radical artists of the day." (Marsden Hartley, New York, 1995, p. 27)

    A significant consequence of the artist's first show at 291 was getting the attention of art dealer N.E. Montross, who saw a similarity in vision between Hartley and an artist he had in his own gallery, Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917). Montross introduced Hartley to Ryder's work, and after seeing these powerful scenes with mystical themes, Hartley was inspired to begin a new series of dramatic landscapes. During this period of 1908-09, he was also enduring a stretch of financial hardship and depression—so strong that Stieglitz thought Hartley was suicidal. The result was a series of melancholic works known as the "Dark Landscapes." One example, The Dark Mountain, No. 2 (1909, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) exhibits a nearly black, brooding palette, barren rocks and dead trees that convey the artist's despair. The weight of the surface on the canvases from this series, with a thick application of paint, using layered and scraping techniques, show further innovation in his painting style and the influence of Ryder.

    The marked stylistic shift in Hartley's work in 1910 can partially be credited with newfound stability and new influences that he encountered through New York connections. The financial pressure eased thanks to a stipend of $4.00 a week from Montross, paid without any commitment of paintings in exchange. Perhaps most significantly, in February 1910, Hartley saw an exhibit of Henri Matisse's (1869-1954) work at 291. While Hartley was working in relative seclusion Maine, his contemporaries like Max Weber (1881-1961) had already studied Matisse and the Fauves' work in Paris. In New York, Hartley was able to learn more about the avant-garde methods that were taught in Paris through these connections with fellow artists, and the color and directness in his work profoundly changed.

    In a series of intimately-sized landscapes painted in 1910, including Birch Grove, Autumn, Hartley worked on boards that were prepared with a black ground layer. Painting on top of black heightened the pigments' neon-like quality and imbued the works with contrast and depth. This technique was a unique distinction from the working methods of contemporary influences—for example the Fauves, who also worked in saturated palettes with broken brushwork, but they typically painted on white canvas that showed bare between strokes. Autumn provided the perfect natural backdrop for a study of color, which Hartley regarded as a primary pursuit to capture. He wrote on this topic early on in his studies in 1900, "I see color in nature so brilliant and it is impossible for me to 'bring it up' to the right key." (in a letter to Richard Tweedy, October 25, 1900, as quoted in B. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1980, p. 14) Birch Grove, Autumn demonstrates how far Hartley had pushed his palette to "the right key" in 1910, to reflect his intense interpretation and powerful vision of nature.

    During the summer that he painted the present work and its series, Hartley wrote to his niece of his process, "I do not sketch much these days for I work almost wholly from the imagination—making pictures entirely from this point of view using the mountains only as backgrounds for ideas... this is difficult art—almost anybody can paint from nature—it calls for a real expert power to create an idea and produce it as one sees it in the mind." (in a letter to Norma Berger, July 11, 1910, as quoted in B. Haskell, Marsden Hartley, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1980, p. 21)

    According to Gail R. Scott, director of the Marsden Hartley Legacy Project: The Complete Paintings and Works on Paper with Bates College Museum of Art, there are approximately seven or eight works that can be considered a part of the series to which Birch Grove, Autumn belongs. Not including the present work, five of these paintings are in museum collections. These works share commonality most principally in their bold color palette as well as in their compositions, displaying close vantage points of the mountains and Kezar Lake. One of these works with a very similar composition to the present work is entitled, Mountain Lake—Autumn (1910, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), which was given by Hartley in 1912 to friend and fellow artist Rockwell Kent (1882-1971). Kent later gifted this work in 1926 to collector Duncan Phillips (1886-1966) for his museum's collection. Mountain Lake—Autumn became one of Phillips's favorite paintings, depicting "mountain sides...tapestried to the top with autumnal colors and rimmed with luminous Ryder-like cloud formations." (Duncan Phillips as quoted in E.D. Passantino, D.W. Scott, eds., The Eye of Duncan Phillips: A Collection in the Making, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 390)

    Lee Simonson (1888-1967), the American theatrical set designer, architect and artist, was a friend of Hartley's since both men had lived in Center Lovell, Maine. Later when the two met-up on Hartley's first trip to Paris in 1912, Simonson made the influential introduction between Hartley and the major collector of Modernist art, Gertrude Stein. On this trip, Hartley encountered the Cubist masters that would dramatically shape his later work. In the late-1920s, Simonson acquired through Stieglitz the present work along with three other works from the same series, in which Simonson found the bold impasto and brilliant colors particularly attractive. A self-portrait by Simonson himself demonstrates the personal affinity he had for daring, Fauve-inspired color. (circa 1912, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.) Simonson later gifted the present work to the Museum of Modern Art and two others from the series are now in the collection of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, including Kezar Lake, Autumn Morning (1910).

    Marsden Hartley is regarded as one of the most pioneering figures of the American Modernist movement, due to his revolutionary vision and painting techniques that were unique and radical for his time. Referring to another work by the artist from this 1910 series, museum curator and American art historian Barbara Haskell wrote that "the entire expression is conveyed through the brushwork itself, creating a degree of gestural abstraction that would not be surpassed in America until Abstract Expressionism." (Marsden Hartley, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1980, p. 21) It is through pivotal early works including Birch Grove, Autumn that the impetus of Hartley's groundbreaking artistic output began and the elements of color and abstraction became paramount.
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