Hartley went to Paris in 1912 and was welcomed into the influential artistic sphere of Gertrude Stein. While in Paris he was introduced to the abstract art of Franz Marc and Vassily Kandinsky. A year later Hartley settled in Berlin, where he fell in love with a German lieutenant, Karl von Freyburg. Tragically, his lover was killed in battle on October 7, 1914. Grief stricken, Hartley created some of his finest paintings to memorialize their relationship.
Portrait of a German Officer (1915):
He returned to New York in 1915, and by the fall of 1916 Hartley was sharing a house in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with Charles Demuth, another modernist artist. Demuth was one of the earliest American artists to reveal a gay identity through explicit yet positive depictions of homosexual desire. Demuth was also well acquainted with the gay scene of New York, where Hartley became friends with lesbian writer Djuna Barnes.
Hartley returned to Europe in 1921 and pursued his literary bent. He soon published Twenty-Five Poems, a book issued by Robert McAlmon's Contact Publishing Company in Paris. The Great Depression forced Hartley to return to the United States, but a Guggenheim fellowship allowed him to spend 1932 in Mexico, where he became a close friend of Hart Crane, who was also in Mexico on a Guggenheim fellowship. On his return voyage to the U.S., Crane was severely beaten after making sexual advances to a male crew member. Crane subsequently jumped overboard off the coast of Florida, and when Hartley learned of his suicide, he painted Eight Bells Folly (1933, below), a surrealist tribute to Crane.
During the middle years of the Depression Hartley supported himself in New York by participating in the Public Works of Art Project. He struck up a friendship with the Francis Mason family in Nova Scotia, and he was to live with them in a Canadian fishing community for several intervals during the rest of his life. Hartley returned to Maine in 1937, after declaring that he wanted to become "the painter of Maine" and depict American life at a local level. This aligned Hartley with the Regionalism movement, a group of artists who attempted to represent a distinctly American art.
Madawaska, Acadian Light-Heavy, Third Arrangement, 1940
He continued to paint in Maine, primarily scenes around Lovell and the Corea coast, until his death in Ellsworth in 1943.
Hartley's work belongs to an American current of expressionism in which he was a pivotal figure. During his lifetime, however, his shifts of style and the relative immaturity of the American art world prevented his receiving full recognition. This neglect augmented a loneliness that his shyness about his homosexuality induced. However, a full-scale 1980 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York cemented his reputation.
The portrait below captures artist Marsden Hartley mourning the death of another man whom Hartley admired. A shadowy man haunting the background of this 1942 photographic portrait taken by photographer George Platt Lynes alludes to the loves of Hartley’s life that were lost and unspoken.
Wayne Dynes: Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (1990)