Marsden Hartley's Gorges du Loup, Provence


Over the course of his artistic life, Marsden Hartley sought unmediated communion with open skies and rugged terrain. Although the mosaic-like compositions that he created during his first trip abroad in 1912 embodied his strong emotions about “the cosmic scene,”1  he sustained an innate belief that the spiritual in nature could only be acquired through direct experience of landscape. Hartley’s “mystical abstractions,” as he called them, drew inspiration from the paintings of Picasso and by the writings of Wassily Kandinsky, but he was also deeply moved by the art and letters of Vincent van Gogh. He sought out Van Gogh’s paintings from the moment he arrived in Paris, describing the artist to Alfred Stieglitz as “an eminently spiritual being”2  with a “visionary quality that gives his canvases their beauty.”3

The sensations of nature that inspired Van Gogh remained foremost in Hartley’s consciousness when he returned to Europe after the first World War, having expressed to Stieglitz a desire to seek “fresh landscape experiences” in the south of France.4  He was anxious to be financially independent from the demands of the art market, but it was not until 1924 that an economic solution presented itself. At the urging of US diplomat William C. Bullitt, who had recently married Hartley’s friend Louise Bryant,5  a syndicate of investors was organized by the New York banker William V. Griffin to provide Hartley with an annual stipend of $2000 for four years. The initial offer was made without demand for compensation, but Hartley insisted sending his benefactors 10 paintings each year “so that I could feel I was earning my living thereby avoiding gifts.”6

In August 1925 Hartley settled in Vence in a house with a garden and a distant view of the Mediterranean. Although he found delight in visits to nearby Cannes, his artistic progress was plagued by bronchitis and rainy weather, and he eventually determined that the immediate countryside of Vence was “nice to look at but not to paint.”7  Instead, his output over the next year was dominated by still-life painting, a practice that had long paralleled his interest in botany and his appreciation of the work of Cézanne and Matisse. Although his slow start in Vence delayed the first installment to the investors, compositions of fruit, flowers, vessels, and baskets helped him meet his first two years’ quota by July 1926.8

When Hartley returned to the landscape for inspiration, he ventured deeper into the Alpes-Maritimes region to Gorges du Loup and Gattière, intending to paint “Italian Alpine profiles.”9  He spent several weeks in these mountainous regions, immersing himself in their dramatic geology and confirming his belief that going straight to nature, rather than relying on the imagination, as Stieglitz had urged, was the path to creative rejuvenation.

Gorges du Loup, Provence, which was painted during one of these liberating excursions, represents Hartley’s encounter with the high rocky masses on either side of a deep ravine. The opening to a low tunnel is dwarfed by the dense and monumental cliffs, challenging access to the placid waters of the river beyond. Unlike the low, horizontal “New Mexico recollections” that preoccupied Hartley in the years preceding this trip, representation of Gorges du Loup, Provence demanded a compact, vertical composition. He used this format to compress the landscape, emphasizing the height of plummeting cliffs and packing their ridges with tenacious flora that encroach on the narrow passageway. Darkly contoured, asymmetric rock walls dominate the foreground and function like diagonally skewed theatre curtains. Dramatically, beyond the crevasse, they reveal the green ribbon of the Loup, low mountain peaks, and an untethered cloud in a pale blue sky.

The dynamic contrasts between the elements of earth, air, and water confirm Hartley’s return to direct experience of the natural motif. His brushstrokes are firm and instinctive, loaded with pigment that physically and chromatically responds to his perception of the Gorges du Loup. He uses short curved marks to construct the foliage and thick vertical gestures to separate irregular surfaces into pools of earthy color. Long vertical streaks suggest rhythmic movement within the solid mass of cliffs—a technical variant of the Cloisonnism10  that he had applied to his New Mexico landscapes and would continue to employ in views of Partenkirchen, Germany; Dogtown (Gloucester, Massachusetts); and Vinalhaven, Maine. In spite of their flattening effect, these aggressive gestures emphasize the physical properties of the view, and reject the careful modeling Hartley employed in works such as Maritime Alps, Vence, No. 9, 1925–1926, whose block-like patches of color signal the influence of Cézanne. When he wrote to Stieglitz that two weeks at Gorges du Loup were “not enough,”11  he admitted to the challenges still before him, but he also revealed renewed conviction in his ability to communicate a deeply personal apprehension of nature.

Maureen O’Brien
Curator, Painting and Sculpture

  • 1Hartley to Rockwell Kent, December 1912, cited in Thomas Ludington, Seeking the Spiritual: the Paintings of Marsden Hartley (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 28.
  • 2Hartley to Stieglitz, n.d. (received December 20, 1912),* My Dear Stieglitz: Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz, 1912–1915*, James Timothy Voorhees, ed. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), 47.
  • 3Hartley to Stieglitz, n.d. (February 1913, Paris), My Dear Stieglitz: Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz, 1912–1915, 57. Hartley’s first letter to Stieglitz from Paris on April 13, 1912, p. 12, declared “I saw 8 Van Goghs this afternoon.” He continued to seek them out in Paris and expressed regret that it would not host the “great show at Cologne with 100 Van Goghs” that was held in Cologne that summer [Sonderbund westdeutscher Kunstfreunde und Künstler, Ausstellungshalle der Stadt Cöln am Aachener Tor, 25 May–30 September 1912] n.d. (September 1912, Paris).
  • 4Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz, December 28, 1922, Stieglitz Papers, Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University.
  • 5Hartley’s circle of friends in Provincetown in the summer of 1916 included journalists Bryant and John Reed (1887–1920), whom she married that fall. Bryant married Bullitt after Reed’s death and introduced him to Hartley in Paris in 1924. In his autobiography, Somehow a Past (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 128, Hartley wrote that he and Bullitt “liked each other from the start.”
  • 6Hartley, Somehow a Past, 132, described his determination to repay the investors with paintings and “to deliver, according to my own suggestion, a certain number of pictures in the year—so that I could feel I was earning my living thereby avoiding gifts.” Discussion and documentation of this arrangement appear in Townsend Ludington, Marsden Hartley: The Biography of an American Artist (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 174, citing Hartley’s letters to Norma Berger, September 1, 1924, and to Alfred Stieglitz December 18, 1924; in Bruce Weber, The Heart of the Matter: The Still Lifes of Marsden Hartley (New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, 2003), 52; and in Heather Hole, Marsden Hartley and the West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 130. Hole cites a letter from Leila Wittler at M. Knoedler & Co. to Miss Irvine at the Whitney Museum, February 1945 (Elizabeth McCausland Papers, Reel D268, fr. 44) identifying the investors: banker James Imbrie, former secretary of the navy James Forrestal, and Ralph Ingersoll, who was married to Griffin’s sister-in-law. Mrs. Griffin’s brother, Judge George Carden, was elsewhere mentioned as an investor.
  • 7Hartley, Somehow a Past, 132.
  • 8Discouraged by his setbacks in Vence, Hartley initially asked Stieglitz to provide Griffin with 10 paintings that he had on hand in New York, “20 x 24 in size … not of the very best of course—at least those less abstract better say” (Hartley to Stieglitz, December 31, 1925, and February 2, 1926, cited in Ludington, 174). Griffin, however, was sympathetic and excused the delay. Weber, 52, notes that the syndicate received at least 10 still-lifes from Hartley, five of which were identified in the 2003 Berry-Hill exhibition and publication.
  • 9Quoted in Jeanne Hokin, Pinnacles & Pyramids: The Art of Marsden Hartley (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993), 57. Hartley uses this phrase in a letter to Stieglitz, February 2, 1926, in which he discusses his plans to visit Gorges du Loup.
  • 10Dark outlines, and in this case interior lines, recall the jeweler’s technique known as cloisonné, in which wires function as dams to isolate pools of enamel. Considered a post-modern painting technique, Cloisonnism was employed by Van Gogh, Gauguin, and others to flatten perspective and create bold decorative effects.
  • 11Hartley, Somehow a Past, 136.