- “Mountains Being a Language with Me” Marianne Moore, Marsden Hartley, and Modernist Revision
Marsden Hartley made a career—though not always a very successful one—painting mountains. He painted mountains in France, Germany, Mexico, New Mexico, and New Hampshire. When he did not have mountains to paint, he improvised them. In Dogtown, Massachusetts, he entitled a painting of boulders Mountains in Stone, and critics have commented repeatedly on the mountain-like contours and masses that characterize his portraits of human subjects.1 Hartley was painting mountains the year before he died, in 1942, and he was painting mountains in 1909 when Alfred Stieglitz first showed his work. Marianne Moore met Hartley through his mountain paintings, at another show at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in 1915. She accorded Hartley’s mountains special notice in a letter home, reporting that she had seen “paintings of mountains by a man named Hartley, also some Picabias and Picassos and so on.”2
Even in a career’s worth of mountain painting, Hartley’s late paintings of Maine’s Mount Katahdin are unique. Previously, in painting the Alps and Mont Sainte-Victoire, Hartley had painted a small number of views repeatedly, but never had he painted so doggedly a single mountain, not to mention a single view of a mountain, as he did Mount Katahdin. Over the four-year period before his death in 1943, he painted Katahdin almost twenty times. The paintings vary only slightly in composition. In Mt. Katahdin, Autumn, No. 2, painted the winter after his 1939 expedition to the mountain, all the elements of succeeding paintings are in place: mountain, foothill, tree, lake (fig. 1). The point of view would not change. A photograph of Hartley [End Page 153] outfitted in plaid shirt and vest and standing next to this canvas appeared in the Bangor Daily News in February 1940 with the accompanying caption: “Katahdin as seen by Bangor Painter” (fig. 2).3
Hartley’s critics have accounted for the Katahdin series in two seemingly contradictory ways. Some, such as Jeanne Hokin and Townsend Ludington, see the repeated depictions as transcendental, as a pilgrimage toward a spiritual peak.4 Others, including Donna M. Cassidy, are more skeptical.5 After all, Hartley’s return to his home state following years abroad in Paris and Berlin coincided with an art market demand for regionalist painting. At the start of a new European war, his move to Maine was also a bid for repatriation in the public eye. Further, in choosing Katahdin as pilgrimage site, Hartley located the spiritual heart of the state right at its tourist center. Katahdin was Maine’s most popular, most recognizable sight, featured at the time on postcards, parks brochures, and advertisements for Vacationland’s newly founded Baxter State Park (Cassidy, “On the Subject of Nativeness,” 240). Hartley’s series may be read as a commercial serialization of the site, and his desire to be the mountain’s “official portrait painter” may be seen as a bid for copyright (Cassidy, “Localized Glory,” 185). His letters offer testimony for both hypotheses: Hartley as pilgrim and Hartley as profiteer. In a letter from September 1939, just before the Katahdin expedition, he writes unabashedly [End Page 154] of needing to “get that Mt. for future reason of fame and success” (quoted in Cassidy, “Localized Glory,” 185). In another letter from that year, though, he would remember the experience as intensely spiritual, one that left him “helpless with words,” akin to having “seen God for the first time” (quoted in Hokin, Pinnacles and Pyramids, 111).