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Sarah Cash, “Marsden Hartley/Berlin Abstraction/1914/1915,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, (accessed December 09, 2023).

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Sep 29, 2016 Version

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Berlin Abstraction is one of more than a dozen deeply symbolic and personal paintings Marsden Hartley produced in 1914 and 1915. These oils contain coded references to Hartley's life in Berlin's vibrant LGBTQ culture and the role of the German military in that culture, as well as an outpouring of the artist's thoughts about war. In particular, they memorialize the artist's cherished friend Karl von Freyburg, a young German lieutenant killed in action during World War I.

The mosaiclike arrangement of symbols and signs in Berlin Abstraction evokes the military pageantry that so impressed Hartley in Berlin: the sleeve cuffs and epaulets of uniforms; a helmet cockade denoted by two concentric circles; and the blue-and-white, diamond-patterned Bavarian flag. Other symbols refer specifically to Freyburg: the red number four signifies the Fourth Regiment of the Kaiser's guards, in which he fought, and the red-and-white checkerboard pattern recalls his love of chess. The central black cross on a white background circumscribed by red and white circles is likely an abstraction of the Iron Cross medal for bravery, which was bestowed posthumously on Freyburg. The calligraphic red letter E refers to Elisabeth, queen of Greece, the patroness of the regiment of Freyburg's cousin, sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck. The painting was strongly influenced by modernism, to which Hartley had been exposed during his European study. For example, the juxtaposition of flat, geometric, black-outlined shapes evidences his interest in synthetic cubism, which he saw in Pablo Picasso's paintings at Gertude and Leo Stein's famous 1912 salon in Paris, where he also met the artist.


Berlin Abstraction numbers among the most innovative works in Marsden Hartley’s oeuvre, and indeed in that of any artist in the first wave of the American avant-garde.[1] The canvas is one of a dozen deeply symbolic and personal paintings Hartley produced between November 1914 and the fall of 1915, during his second stay in Berlin. The name by which the group is best known today, the German Officer portraits, derives from the most discussed aspect of its content: the World War I soldiers to whom the paintings pay tribute, especially the artist’s cherished friend Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg. Although their primary significance is elegiac, the War Motifs, as Hartley called them, are as rich with layers of meaning as they are vibrant and complex in appearance.[2]

Born in Lewiston, Maine, to working-class English immigrant parents, Hartley received some artistic training in Cleveland in the 1890s after his family relocated there. When he moved to New York in 1899, he studied at William Merritt Chase’s School of Art and the National Academy of Design. This restlessness was to characterize Hartley’s later life as well as his art: he traveled frequently in Europe, North America, and Mexico, painting landscapes, still lifes, and abstractions in many different styles. The location closest to his heart, however, was Berlin—he called it “without question the finest modern city in Europe.”[3] His first two excursions there were financed by the photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864 - 1946), who promoted Hartley’s work in a one-man exhibition at his gallery 291 in 1909 and in a pioneering group show there the following year, Younger American Painters.[4]

In April 1914, reunited in Berlin with Freyburg and his cousin, the sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck, both of whom he had met during his first European trip in 1912−1913, Hartley resumed his enthusiastic embrace of the “movement and energy” of the fast-growing modern metropolis[5]—the brilliantly colored military uniforms, lively parades, and other pageantry of the imperial capital—and the city’s LGBTQ subculture, which was closely intertwined with the German military at that time.[6] Simultaneously, his friendship with Freyburg intensified, and the two likely became lovers.[7] In the fall of 1914, however, Hartley’s exuberance was dashed by a series of tragedies: he learned that his father had died in August, the same month as the outbreak of World War I; on October 7 Freyburg was killed in battle on the western front; and soon thereafter Rönnebeck was seriously wounded and hospitalized. These events, above all Freyburg’s death, led to Hartley’s creation of the War Motifs. After a month of intense grieving, Hartley began the series to memorialize his friend and the many other war dead and to express his abhorrence of the war in general.[8]

As one Hartley scholar has written, despite this primary meaning, the artist’s War Motifs are multivalent and represent a major synthesis of modernism’s pictorial vocabulary. They contain heavily coded expressions of Hartley’s life in Berlin’s vibrant LGBTQ culture, the role of the German military in that culture, and an outpouring of the artist’s thoughts about war.[9] Like the brightly colored, effusive Berlin canvases that predated Hartley’s emotional downturn, Berlin Abstraction and other War Motif paintings were strongly influenced by the modernism to which he had been exposed on his first European trip. The juxtaposition of flat, geometric, black-outlined shapes continues the artist’s espousal of synthetic cubism—he was the first American artist to fully adopt the style—which he saw when he met Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881 - 1973) at Gertrude and Leo Stein’s famous salon in Paris in 1912. His loosely brushed, bright palette recalls the bold German expressionist work by Der Blaue Reiter members Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866 - 1944) and Franz Marc (German, 1880 - 1916) with whom he became friendly in Berlin in 1913. The two not only strongly influenced his style but also led him to embrace the spiritual aspects of art.

Berlin Abstraction incorporates general allusions to German military pageantry found in the other War Motif paintings: the sleeve cuffs and epaulets of uniforms; a helmet cockade denoted by two concentric circles; and the blue-and-white, diamond-patterned Bavarian flag. Other symbols refer specifically to Freyburg: the red number four signifies the Fourth Regiment of the Kaiser’s guards, in which he fought, and the red-and-white checkerboard pattern recalls his love of chess. The central black cross on a white background circumscribed by a red and a white circle is likely an abstraction of the Iron Cross medal for bravery bestowed posthumously on Freyburg. The calligraphic red letter E refers to Elisabeth, queen of Greece, the patroness of Rönnebeck’s regiment.[10]

The content and style of the War Motifs evolved from symbol-laden and hieratically, even anthropomorphically, composed paintings that refer specifically to Freyburg early in the series to increasingly patterned canvases that more generally evoke the vivid designs of German military uniforms.[11] Portrait of a German Officer [fig. 1], acknowledged to be the first painting in the sequence, incorporates explicit references to Freyburg—his initials (K.v.F.), his age when he died (24), and his regiment number (4)—into a composition of interlocking elements evocative of a human torso against a black background. In contrast, Berlin Abstraction is one of the three latest, most abstract paintings in the series. Along with Painting Number 5 [fig. 2] and Military [fig. 3], it achieves a total absence of illusionistic space and a near erasure of recognizable subject matter, its more loosely arranged pictorial elements extending to the edge of the canvas and incorporating fewer symbols referring specifically to Freyburg.[12]

In the spring of 1916, 40 of the Berlin paintings, including the War Motifs series, were exhibited at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery. Berlin Abstraction was likely included.[13] Although some critics wrote favorably about the Berlin paintings’ formal qualities, others criticized them for their perceived pro-German messages. In 1916 Hartley issued a statement claiming that the group had no hidden meaning. He described their forms as “those which I have observed casually from day to day” and having “no symbolism whatsoever.”[14] It was only after his death that the more private nature of these paintings was revealed.

Sarah Cash

September 29, 2016


Probably collection of the artist [1877-1943], Maine;[1] probably Alfred Stieglitz [1864-1946], New York.[2] Paul L. Rosenfeld [1890-1946], New York;[3] bequest 1946 to Arthur Schwab and Edna Bryner Schwab [1886-1967], New York;[4] consigned 1946 to (Downtown Gallery, New York);[5] consigned to (sale, Kende Galleries at Gimbel Brothers, New York, 17-18 January 1947, 1st day, no. 65); purchased January 1947 by Ione [1915-1987] and Hudson [1907-1976] Walker, Minneapolis;[6] (Babcock Galleries, New York), February 1966;[7] purchased 30 January 1967 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition History

Probably Haas-Heye Galerie of the Münchener Graphik Verlag, Berlin, October 1915.
Probably Paintings by Marsden Hartley, Photo-Secession Galleries, New York, 4 April - 22 May 1916, unnumbered catalogue.
Loan to display with permanent collection, University Gallery, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1950s-1965.
Marsden Hartley, McNay Art Institute, San Antonio; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Amerika Haus, Berlin; Stadtische Galerie München in Verbindung mit dem Amerika Haus, Munich; Kunstmuseum der Stadt Amerika Düsseldorf in Verbindung mit dem Amerikanischen Generalkonsultat, Dusseldorf; American Embassy, London; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; City Art Museum, Saint Louis; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1 December 1960 - 31 January 1962, no. 16.
Marsden Hartley, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago, 5 March - 3 August 1980, no. 107.
Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 20 November 2004 - 7 August 2005, unpublished checklist.
Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 72.
The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1 March - 27 July 2008, unpublished checklist.
American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June - 18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
Inventing Abstraction, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 23 December 2012 - 15 April 2013, no. 153.
American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist (removed early from this exhibition for loan to the 2014 exhibition in Berlin and Los Angeles).
Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2014, unnumbered catalogue, repro.

Technical Summary

The painting is executed on a plain-weave, medium-weight, pre-primed canvas and is unlined.[1] On the reverse of the fabric, “27/15370” and “2171” (crossed out) are written in black crayon, probably not by the artist. The stretcher, a replacement, is a five-member, keyable model. The priming is a thin, smooth, ivory colored layer. The opaque paint was freely applied with some brushmarking and low to medium impasto. Most of the colors were mixed with varying amounts of white paint (except for the black and possibly red). The artist apparently did not use any glazes to modify his colors. Hartley began the painting by laying in a relatively smooth layer of black paint that mostly covered the light-colored ground. The composition of red, yellow, green, white, blue, and black shapes was painted on top of the already dry black layer. Most of the paint was applied thickly, with ridges, daubs, and prominent brushstrokes, but in some passages the paint was more thinly applied and was rubbed and intentionally abraded. The black underlayer plays an important role in the design, as it remains visible through the thin paint and was left exposed around the edges of many of the brightly colored shapes. The painting is in excellent condition with only some fine cracking in the thickest white passages and a little abrasion around the edges. At an unknown time it was coated with a heavy layer of discolored varnish that was not appropriate to the painting; this varnish was removed in 2015. To preserve the subtle discrepancies in gloss that had been part of Hartley’s original execution, the painting was left unvarnished.[2]


"1st Editions to Go on Sale Tomorrow." New York Times (12 January 1947): 63.
McCausland, Elizabeth. Marsden Hartley. Minneapolis, 1952: 26, 66.
Harithas, James. "Marsden Hartley's German Period Abstractions." The Corcoran Gallery of Art Bulletin 16, no. 3 (November 1967): 22, repro., 24.
Hudson, Andrew. "Around the Galleries." The Washington Post and Times Herald (26 March 1967): H:7.
Hudson, Andrew. "Viewpoint on Art: Capital's Museums Grow in Prestige." The Washington Post and Times Herald (28 May 1967): K:7, repro.
Corcoran Gallery of Art. "The Annual Report of the One Hundred and Ninth Year." The Corcoran Gallery of Art Bulletin 16, no. 4 (June 1968): cover, 4, 26, repro.
Phillips, Dorothy W. A Catalogue of the Collection of American Paintings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Vol. 2: Painters born from 1850 to 1910. Washington, 1973: 98, repro., 99.
Levin, Gail. “Hidden Symbolism in Marsden Hartley’s Military Pictures.” Arts Magazine 54 (October 1979): 157, fig. 13, 158.
Corcoran Gallery of Art. American Painting: The Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1984: 34, repro., 35.
Scott, Gail R. Marsden Hartley. New York, 1988: 53, 55, pl. 39.
McDonnell, Patricia. Dictated by Life: Marsden Hartley's German Paintings and Robert Indiana's Hartley Elegies. Exh. cat. Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1995: 31, 52, repro.
Cash, Sarah, with Terrie Sultan. American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York, 2000: 161, 172, repro.
Heartney, Eleanor, ed. A Capital Collection: Masterworks from the Corcoran Gallery of Art. London, 2002: 18 (detail), 19, 38-39, repro.

"Celebrating American Genius [exh. review]." New York Sun (6 July 2006): 1, repro, 16.
Patterson, Tom. "Just Visiting: Major American Works from the Corcoran Gallery are Ending the Year at Charlotte's Mint Museum [exh. review]." Winston-Salem Journal (3 December 2006): F:9
Shinn, Susan. "Viewing Masters: 'Encountering American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art' Opens at the Mint [exh. review]." Salisbury Post (12 October 2006): D:7.
Bennett, Lennie. "The Coming of Age of American Art [exh. review]." St. Petersburg Times (18 February 2007): 9L, repro.
Cash, Sarah. "Marsden Hartley, Berlin Abstraction." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 210-211, 278-279, repro.
Scholz, Dieter, ed. Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings 1913-1915 Exh. cat. Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Berlin, Los Angeles, and New York, 2014: 90 repro., 204.
"The Corcoran Gallery of Art - A New Beginning." American Art Review 16, no. 2 (March-April 2014): 139, repro.

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