Marsden Hartley’s Glass Paintings

Marsden Hartley first attempted reverse painting on glass in 1917, the summer he came back to Maine to paint. He studied and learned the technique while living in Germany, where he formed a friendship with the Russian avant-garde painter Wassily Kandinsky and his painting companion Gabriele Münter, a German Expressionist painter whose work Hartley greatly admired. Kandinsky and Münter spent time in Murnau, a twelfth-century market town on the outskirts of the Bavarian Alps about an hour south of Munich. Kandinsky, whose love of the traditional arts was fostered as a youth in his native Russia, began painting local folk motifs on the furniture and walls of their house. In the meantime, Münter was schooled in the traditional way of reverse painting on glass by one of the last Bavarian glass painters working in the eighteenth-century style.[1] She, in turn, taught Kandinsky, who, like other members of Der Blaue Reiter group, admired and collected Bavarian folk art. Most likely, she taught Hartley the techniques as well. Hartley became fascinated by Kandinsky’s collection of over one hundred Bavarian folk-art glass paintings.  In 1913, he penned a note to Kandinsky and Münter, thanking them for his most recent visit. He wrote of the beautiful collection of pictures in their home, which he admired, and went on to mention his elation over his own Glasbilder and how much joy he received from them.[2] He would later write to Alfred Stieglitz that he was bringing back to New York six Bavarian glass paintings he had purchased in Munich.[3]

In the summer 1917, Hartley went to stay at the art school at Perkins Cove run by Hamilton Easter Field and Robert Laurent. Field was a proponent of learning to paint by being oneself rather than by copying the techniques of other artists. Individualism was the ideal for Field and the group of artists with whom he surrounded himself, a philosophy he learned from his friend Henri Fantin-Latour. His response to Field’s request for lessons was: “Sit down, be true to the model and yourself, is all anyone can tell you.”[4] Field’s school was a place for his many protégés to live and work in an authentic American coastal landscape, among his myriad collections. Inspiration was everywhere—in the surrounding landscape, in the travels the artists took across the state, and right there in the studios Field had built at Perkins Cove. He filled the cottages with his collections of American folk art: decoys, theorems or stencil paintings, primitive portraits, weather vanes and sailor’s art.[5] Journalist Elsa Rogo wrote of the cottages:

Down in the fishing village of Perkins Cove, [Field] made studios out of parts of old barns, which he picked up any and everywhere. He saw to it that they conformed with the fine simplicity of the fishermen’s huts. . . . So profound was his veneration for the purity of taste of the early New Englanders that he rescued many excellent pieces of furniture and rugs from desuetude and oblivion, and started the early American fad in several quarters.[6]

Hartley had met Field and Laurent in New York upon Hartley’s return from Germany in 1915. Field, scion of an old East Coast family, was an aesthete who collected art and artists who awakened his artistic sensibilities. According to Rogo, whose artist husband, Stefan Hirsch, was one of Field’s artists and later an officer of the Hamilton Easter Field Foundation, Field was a passionate collector with an eye for detail. His collections ran the gamut from European drawings and old master paintings to African sculpture and Chinese stone prints. He was an acknowledged connoisseur of Japanese prints, of which he possessed one of the earliest American collections.[7] Robert Laurent and his wife were renowned collectors of American folk art and a number of important pieces in American collections today have a Laurent provenance. Bernard Karfiol immortalized a few pieces of the Laurent collection that hung in the couple’s living room with his depiction of their two sons in the painting Making Music, Ogunquit, Maine (fig. 1).[8] The duo’s passion for collecting relics from the country’s past appealed to Hartley’s deepening interest in nationalism and pride in native cultures, a subject that runs throughout his oeuvre. While in Berlin in 1914, he began exploring Native American culture with his “Amerika” series. These paintings are rife with Native American imagery of pottery, headdressed figures in canoes, tepees, cooking fires, and eight-spoked wheel shapes (fig. 2 Indian Fantasy NCMA, Raleigh).


Fig. 1 (left): Bernard Karfiol, Making Music, Ogunquit, Maine, 1938. Oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in. American Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, promised gift of Bunty and Tom Armstrong, 2000.TA.1 (L).

Fig. 2 (right): Marsden Hartley, Indian Fantasy, 1914. Oil on canvas, 46 11/16 x 39 5/16in. (118.6 x 99.9cm). North Carolina Museum of Art. Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina, 75.14.

Hartley’s first glass paintings from 1917 are primitive compared to his canvas paintings from prior years. A complicated procedure, reverse painting on glass requires that details and highlights be painted first, then the foreground carefully laid on top. A background is added to fill the picture plane and a silver-leaf glaze applied to the back of the panel to give the work a lustrous, reflective quality.  In Hartley’s earliest examples, a reticence and unfamiliarity with the technique are apparent, especially in Three Flowers in a Vase (fig. 3). In it, Hartley depicts his flowers as a series of colorful shapes, including a multicolored pinwheel flower and a large, pink, star-shaped blossom standing tall in the center of the composition. Both of these shapes appeared in his Portrait of Berlin from 1913, though, curiously, they were depicted as having either eight spokes or eight star points while the blooms in Three Flowers in a Vase have only seven spokes and seven star points. The number eight is significant in Buddhist teachings as the eightfold path is considered the path to enlightenment, which Hartley would have known through his frequent visits to museums in France and Germany.[9] The streaky blue background in Three Flowers in a Vase serves only to enhance the vase of flowers and push it out into the viewer’s space. The vase, a Chinese export porcelain bottle vase, likely from Hamilton Easter Field’s collection of Americana, is crudely depicted and drawn out of proportion and balance. But it is an instantly recognizable form to anyone familiar with export porcelain.

Fig. 3: Marsden Hartley, Three Flowers in a Vase, 1917. Tempera and tinfoil on glass, 13 1/8 x 7 5/8 in. (33.3 x 19.4 cm). Private collection.

When we compare the finished quality of Three Flowers in a Vase to another of Hartley’s reverse glass paintings, Still-Life (fig. 4), also from 1917, we can see how much more familiar Hartley had become with the medium. The later painting, a depiction of a basket of flowers on a pedestal, is more vibrant and skilled. Hartley certainly must have looked to nineteenth-century American theorems, needlework, and other painted-glass pictures for inspiration. The flowers—what appear to be roses and pansies with greenery—are more precisely rendered and also recall nineteenth-century sailor’s valentines, which were small shellwork pictures done by sailors while at sea to bring home to wives, mothers, or sweethearts. As Maine was a center of maritime trade in the nineteenth century, there were most likely numerous examples of this type of shellwork to be seen in the state and in Field’s or Laurent’s collections. The roses in this valentine from the Mariners’ Museum and Park of Newport News, Virginia, are made of smaller shells layered on top of each other to form petals, reminding us of Hartley’s roses in the basket of flowers (fig. 5). Stencil paintings (fig. 6) are some of the most enduring examples of American folk art and surely would have been a part of the Field or the Laurent collections of Americana. They were most often created by schoolgirls who were being instructed in the finer pursuits of life. A variety of stencils would be used for their artworks, combining leaves, flowers, fruits, and animals.[10] Images of openwork baskets are often filled with fruit or flowers, signifying that bounty was the norm.  


Fig. 4 (top left):  Marsden Hartley, Still Life, 1917. Oil on glass mounted on board, 16 1/2 x 16 in. (41.9 x 40.6 cm). Private collection.

Fig. 5 (top right): Unknown maker, Sailor’s Valentine, c. 1875. Wood, glass, shell, cotton, cardboard, and metal, 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 x 3 1/2 in. The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Museum Collection, 1994.0017.000001.

Fig. 6 (bottom): Artist unknown, American, Painting of Fruit, c. 1840. Watercolor on velvet, 17 1/2 x 21 1/2 in. (44.5 x 54.6 cm). Colby College Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ellerton M. Jetté.

The background of Hartley’s glass painting recalls his “Amerika” series from 1915. He employed a strong horizon line with large areas of solid colors in red, green, and black for the background of Still-Life. Though the black background of Hartley’s glass paintings also recalls his German work, using black had another, practical purpose. In Chinese export reverse paintings on glass from the nineteenth century, black was often used as a background color to keep light from penetrating the translucent surface of the painting plane, giving the surface of the painting a more three-dimensional appearance.[11]  Nowhere does this come through more than in Still-Life (Ear of Corn) (fig. 7). The simple black backdrop thrusts the corn out of the picture plane and into the viewer’s space. Hartley transforms and gives artistic credence to an everyday food, one that was and still is prevalent all over Maine. Though the state is known more for its lobster and potatoes, corn and cornfields were an important aspect of its landscape. In his travels around the state with Field’s artists, Hartley would have seen roadside vegetable stands and perhaps corn-shaped trade signs announcing the readily available commodity, both of which can still be seen in Maine a hundred years later.  Maine’s climate was perfect for growing sweet corn and, in 1850, the Winslow Brothers patented a corn-canning process. By the early twentieth century, there were 111 canneries in the state, most of which canned corn for export to other states.[12] (fig. 8). The image of Still-Life (Ear of Corn) also harkens back to Native American culture by glorifying a vital food source of the earliest New England tribes.


Fig. 7 (left): Marsden Hartley, Still Life (Ear of Corn), 1917. Oil on glass mounted on board, 20 x 7 1/2 in. (50.8 x 19.1 cm). Collection of Norma B. Marin.

Fig. 8 (right): Jewett Corn Cans, c. 1900, Norridgewock, Maine.

Hartley’s ideal national identity for his home country was a far-flung mix of Native American iconography, inspiration from international folk art, objects from America’s past, and the Maine landscape that he loved so much. He effectively combined these elements into a painting style that propelled the artist onto the international stage, where he has remained firmly in place for over a century. His willingness to experiment with painting on glass and to reach well out of his comfort zone reveals an innovative artist who was not afraid to branch out and consider new ideas and techniques.

[1]Gail Levin, “Marsden Hartley’s ‘Amerika’: Between Native American and German Folk Art,” American Art Review 5, no. 2 (Winter 1993), 123.

[2]Ibid., 123.

[3]Donna Cassidy, “The Local as Cosmopolitan: Marsden Hartley’s Transnational Maine,” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Marsden Hartley’s Maine (Metropolitan Museum of Art: 2017), 85.

[4]Doreen Bolger, “Hamilton Easter Field and His Contribution to American Modernism,” in The American Art Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1988) 82.

[5]Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser,  “Marsden Hartley and Folk Art,” The Magazine Antiques, 163, no. 1 (January 2003), 155.

[6]Elsa Rogo, “Forward” in Hamilton Easter Field Art Foundation Collection of Paintings and Sculpture, (Art Institute of Chicago: December 14, 1934–Jan. 20, 1935), unpag. i-ii.

[7]Ibid., Tiepolo’s Baptism of Christ (18.144), now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was purchased by the museum from an auction of Field’s drawing collection at Anderson Galleries, New York, December 10, 1918, lot 80.

[8]The painting of the baby on the right rear wall is now in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg; the painting of the young girl with the cat is in an American private collection.

[9]In Portrait of Berlin, now in the collections of Yale University, Hartley employed an eight-pointed star, the Prussian symbol for the High Order of the Black Eagle, the number eight, and a seated Buddha figurine as the major visual elements in the painting. Laura Bergman, “Navigating Marsden Hartley’s Symbols,” in LACMA UnFramed (September 10, 2014),  See also: Levin, 1993, for more information on Hartley’s fascination with both Native American and German folk art.

[10]Robert Shaw, “Academy and School Work,” Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections for the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana (Marquand Books, Seattle: 2007), 145.

[11]Mary McGinn et al., “Winterthur Primer: Reverse Painting on Glass,” Antiques and Fine Arts (Boston: Winter 2010), 282.

[12]“Farming in Maine” in Maine History Online (Maine Historical Society), slide 16, Maine Memory Network