Marsden Hartley called himself ‘the artist of Maine.’ He was a renowned Modernist artist who painted manly, rugged scenes of fishermen, mountains and rocky seashores.
But at a time when he considered abandoning art, it was an eccentric New Age community run by a woman in Eliot, Maine, that saved his career.
Born in Lewiston, Maine, on Jan. 4, 1877, Marsden Hartley was the last of nine children born to English parents. His mother died when he was eight. His father remarried and his family moved to Cleveland in 1892. He studied art first in Cleveland and then moved to New York to study and embrace the Bohemianism of Greenwich Village.
Beginning a pattern he would repeat throughout his life, in 1901 he left New York for Maine for the first of many summers. Hartley would forever bounce between the city and the country, tiring of one, then the other. In 1937, after a long stint in Europe, he returned to Lewiston. He declared then that he wanted to become “the painter of Maine.”
He had moved to Lewiston before, in the fall of 1906. Then 29, he hoped to earn a living teaching art. He rented a studio and sent out handmade announcements, but he had few takers. Worse, his paintings didn’t sell. He had so little money he thought about giving up art for journalism.
A friend suggested he contact the Congress of Religions, a utopian community at Green Acre in Eliot. Green Acre, a former shipyard, was run by Sarah Farmer for the purpose of promoting peace, religious unity and, later, the principles of the Baha’i faith. Farmer raised the first known Peace Flag, 36 feet long, on an 85-foot flagpole.
Hartley got a job as a handyman at Green Acre, putting up tents and doing odd jobs in exchange for room and board. He was treated as more than the hired help, and engaged in discussions about Eastern mysticism with the residents. He also talked about literature: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Blake.
Marsden Hartley’s summer at Green Acre helped crystallize his views that landscape represents the earthly and the transcendent in human nature. Perhaps more importantly, he met a wealthy patron.
The former Sara Jane Thorp was a timber heiress and the widow of Ole Bull, the famous Norwegian violinist and composer. She followed the Swami Vivekanande. When she left nearly all her estate to the Vedanta Society, her daughter challenged the will, claiming the Hindus had driven her insane.
Mrs. Bull also extended her generosity to artists, including the Green Acre handyman. She held a one-man show of Marsden Hartley’s work at her home. His supporters from Green Acre attended, and the exhibit was a success. Best of all, he earned $90 from the sale of his paintings.
Success at Last
That success convinced Marsden Hartley to soldier on with his art, which he would do until his death in 1943. He is considered one of the foremost American painters of the first half of the 20th century.
The Peace Flag is still raised in Eliot, Maine. Green Acre is now a year-round Baha’I school operated by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States.
This story last updated in 2022.
Images: Marsden Hartley by Stieglitz By The Metropolitan Museum of Art – http://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/ap/web-large/DT6731.jpg, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56215414. The Inn at Green Acre By Sisay Borga Sabera – Sisay Borga Sabera, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64792699. Lobster Fishermen By The Metropolitan Museum of Art – http://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/ap/web-large/DT6731.jpg, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56215708. Fishermen’s Last Supper Public Domain.