Greatness is not simply a quality one carries around as a personality trait: It is an earned quality, interwoven with actions, outcomes and the echoes of influence. It’s a question for history – not something that can be seen in a narcissist’s hand mirror, however much it glows.

Marsden Hartley’s personal mirror certainly didn’t glow like the sun. Often, it was quite the opposite – it burned like the sun. The impressions Hartley left us, though, came not from mirrored self-reflection, but in his writing and paintings, usually the latter. Hartley was indeed one of the greatest American painters. And history may eventually show he was one of Western culture’s most influential painters. His critical fortunes have been soaring lately, particularly on the wings of a show that has traveled from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to Colby: “Marsden Hartley and Maine.”

Descriptions of Hartley’s paintings are no match for the real thing: If you can, see them in person. “Marsden Hartley’s Maine” should not be missed by anyone seriously interested in Maine paintings. Many of Hartley’s most powerful Maine works have been gathered from around the world in central Maine, to be seen – for free – in one of America’s best art museums. The exhibition far outstrips the coolness of the New York installation, not for the walls on which they hang – Colby’s main gallery, after all is not its strongest space – but for the intimacy of the work, which sparkles with an undercurrent of warmth that eluded it at the Met Breuer. Displayed in Maine, the work is dense, chewy and accessible. Hartley’s bold inquisitiveness appears with an incomparable freshness and authenticity. Hartley sought to be “The Painter of Maine.” And he has finally achieved it – however flawed and fresh-flayed the honor arrives.

Beside Hartley, Homer’s brush, though bold and brilliant, feels a bit staged and (dare I say it?) inauthentic.

Bequest of A. James Speyer, The Art Institute of Chicago
“Madawaska – Acadian Light-Heavy,” 1940, oil on hardboard (masonite), 40 by 30 inches. Photos courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

Hartley is the real thing, the ultimate Maine painter, the Mountain King.

“Marsden Hartley’s Maine” surprises from the start with its dedication to Cezanne and post-Impressionism. It’s evident in his early, tightly brushy rhythms, his unapologetically Cezannesque drawings (and how Hartley could draw!), as well as his specific references, such as in the Smithsonian’s 1940-41 “Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach.” The connection to Cezanne is undeniable, yet the update could hardly be more Maine – or more Hartley. The model’s body is that of a taut, tight and tanned young man, far more powerful than Cezanne’s boy bather, however seminal.

Hartley’s late portrait (1942) of a man with a chicken on his shoulder, “Young Seadog with Friend Billy,” appears to us an idealized self-portrait, sensuous rather than wizened. But it is his 1940 “Madawaska: Acadian light/heavy,” on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, that explains his international appeal. This canvas is one of the greatest homoerotic masterpieces ever painted. Its accomplishment lies not with the obvious aspects of ideal human physical attraction, but in the subtleties of the brush on canvas: the softness of the facial stubble and a deliriously sensuous stroke of blue on the model’s G-string-like athletic supporter.

“Marsden Hartley’s Maine” is loaded with the artist’s greatest coastal paintings, wave after stolidly spartan wave. We see Hartley’s delicate best with several of the few remaining reverse-painting-on-glass florals – his meaningfully present still lifes of Audubon-esque dead birds or an indulgently tasty-red, still-steaming lobster.

He also gives us a wonderful 1938 portrait of Albert Pinkham Ryder as the apogee of a coastal Mainer – spare, humble and salty.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Edith and Milton Lowenthal Collection,
bequest of Edith Abrahamson Lowenthal, 1991
“Albert Pinkham Ryder,” 1938, oil on commercially prepared paperboard (academy board), 28 by 22 inches. Photos courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

But it is in his images of Katahdin where we glimpse Hartley at his best. These images of Maine’s powerful, mysterious and magisterial landscape are something rarely matched in history, though they are a conscious echo of Cezanne’s canvases of Mont Sainte-Victoire and Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji. To watch Hartley’s coastal waves crashing is to fall, mesmerized, into a knowable place of our own. But his views of Katahdin take us past Frederic Church and – let’s admit it – every painter to follow his then-fresh-blazed path to push pigments in the shape of Maine’s highest mountain.

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s “Hall of the Mountain King” struck me as the keystone to “Marsden Hartley’s Maine.” It’s an ode to post-Impressionism. We see Hartley salute van Gogh as deeply and elegantly as any American painter ever has. It’s a landscape that would have taken away the breath even of N.C. Wyeth. But its title’s reference to Edvard Grieg’s musical masterpiece (fitting, since the Scandinavian Grieg’s match to Maine is ideal) is a gorgeously reflected muse: Hartley’s wish, I believe, was to be settled as the Mountain King in his hallowed hall – Mount Katahdin – once he was gone. And having seen “Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” I think he deserves that crown.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
“Hall of the Mountain King,” 1908–09, oil on canvas, 30 by 30 inches. Photos courtesy of Colby College Museum of Art

Hartley was also a brilliant and accomplished poet and writer and a nuanced thinker – it’s only recently that many of his writings have been available in print. But bits of them can be troubling. It’s easy to empathize with Hartley’s sense of being an outsider – as a homosexual, an “invert” as he was viewed by a racist and bigoted American society. He found acceptance in Germany, where he fell in love with a German officer who is immortalized in several of his paintings. But it’s not easy to excuse Hartley’s later Aryan enthusiasm in light of Nazi atrocities, and the many seemingly anti-Semitic comments in his writing.

Hartley’s anti-Semitism is a potentially huge subject, in its subtleties, as well as its import. It is a necessary discussion, especially since Hartley – I contend, and I am not alone – should displace Winslow Homer as the face of Maine painting. But this is not the time to dress down his remarks. Moreover, to even begin a truly meaningful discussion, we need to understand Hartley’s work, and to understand it, we need to encounter it in person.

Our appropriate – however knee-jerk – instinct in favor of First-Amendment free speech rights is the same apparent flaw as in our conversation about artist Dana Schutz’s controversial portrait of Emmett Till, the young black boy who was murdered in 1950s Mississippi after he was (falsely) accused of flirting with a white woman. The key in both cases are the paintings. I think that Schutz should stand tall and proud, and that Hartley – like Picasso, Michelangelo, Goya, van Gogh, Duchamp, Warhol, Corbusier, Pollock and Homer, too – is not diminished by a close consideration of his flaws and complexities. We need to challenge ourselves – and Hartley – in the light of history, however guttering that candle may be. What we think of him will undoubtedly change. However, Hartley’s paintings of Maine show us at our very best.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]