Marsden Hartley

(American, 1877–1943)


, 1915
Oil on canvas, Image: 47 1/8 x 47 1/4 in (119.7 x 120 cm); Frame: 50 1/8 x 50 1/8 in (127.3 x 127.3 cm)
Purchase, Mark Ranney Memorial Fund, 1958.1


Marsden Hartley developed a specific visual language to represent elements of German military pageantry (for example, an Iron Cross and the number "4" for the fourth regiment of the Kaiser's guards), and he used familiar objects (the black and white squares of a chessboard) to symbolize his close friend Karl Edmund von Freyburg, a German officer who was killed in battle in October 1914.

E is one of fourteen paintings in Hartley's German Officer series, created between 1914 and 1915. Hartley visited Berlin in 1913 and became so enamored with both the city's enthusiastic support for the arts and the great parades of the imperial guard that he moved there later that year. In a letter to Alfred Stieglitz, Hartley declared Berlin to be "without question the finest modern city in Europe."

In 1914, World War I began, and Freyburg was killed in battle. Hartley's interest in militaristic symbols provided him with subject matter for the paintings that followed, and, by employing what he called 'intuitive abstraction,' war motifs and other symbols became the language he used to express his grief. For example, in E, the checkered pattern in the center of the painting could refer to chess, which was Freyburg's favorite game. In addition, the blue-and-white combination might suggest the colors of the Bavarian coat of arms from Freyburg's native province.

Hartley's vigorous brushwork patterns, and his use of bright colors with black, convey an emotional intensity common to the German Expressionists. Hartley was also described as the first American artist to work successfully with Cubism, thus synthesizing modern European styles for an American audience.