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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Painting Number 49, Berlin

Photo: Susan Cole

Painting Number 49, Berlin


Marsden Hartley

Born Lewiston, Maine, 1877; died Ellsworth, Maine, 1943

The Pariser Platz was jammed to the stoops and windows with those huge cuirassiers of the Kaiser's special guard all in whitewhite leather breeches skin-tighthigh plain enamel bootsthose gleaming medieval breast plates of silver and brassinspiring helmets with the imperial eagleand the white manes hanging downthere was six foot of youth under all this garniture and everyone on a horse and every horse white—that is how I got it—and it went into an abstract painting of soldiers riding into the sun.

— Marsden Hartley recollecting Berlin in 1913, from Somehow a Past, his draft autobiography, 1933

Marsden Hartley once claimed that the abstractions he painted in Berlin in the years immediately before and after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 were simply visual impressions of the kaleidoscope of sights in a city colored by the military pageantry of Kaiser Wilhelm's imperial cavalry. But his private statements tell a different story about the meaning behind these colorful compositions. To understand the symbolism of this enigmatic painting, we must examine the artist's experience in Berlin and the tenor of the times in war-torn America that forced Hartley never to divulge what this and other of his German paintings meant to him.

Oil on canvas
47 x 39 1/2 in. (119.4 x 100.3 cm)
Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth
Provenance: Estate of the artist, no. 142 (as Painting No. 49, Berlin, there dated 1915-16; on Elizabeth McCausland estate record, June 1944, given as No Title #49); to Hudson D. Walker, New York; [Babcock Galleries, New York, 1957-1959, as Portrait of a German Officer, 1916]; [Zabriskie Gallery, New York]; [Felix Landau Gallery, Los Angeles]; Arnold H. Maremont, Chicago, by 1961-1974; sold [Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, Important 20th Century Paintings, Drawings & Sculpture from the Collection of Arnold H. Maremont, sale no. 3630, May 1, 1974, lot 12, as Berlin Abstraction]; [Peter Davidson and Co., Inc., New York, 1974]; [Babcock Galleries, New York, 1977]; purchased by Barney A. Ebsworth, Seattle, Washington; to Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, 2001
Photo: Susan Cole
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

Other of the German Officer Paintings

Painting Number 47, Berlin, ca. 1914-15, Marsden Hartley
E, 1915, Marsden Hartley
The Iron Cross, 1915, Marsden Hartley

Hartley in Kaiser Wilhelm's Berlin

"Parade, Fahnenkompagnie" [postcard from Marsden Hartley to Gertrude Stein], 1913
I moved the following May 1914 [sic; 1913] to Berlin. . . . The intense flamelike quality of life there—for things were of course up on their toes and ready to kick off. Such spick and spanness in the order of life I had never witnessed anywhere—not merely because the military life provided the key and clue to everything then—but this sense of order flowed over into common life—and such cleanliness prevailed as hardly to believe—the pavements shining like enamel leather.

I had never felt such a sense of voluptuous tension in the air anywhere. It was all so warm to my long chilled New England nature and provided the sense of home always so needed in my life . . .

—Marsden Hartley, recalling Berlin, from "Somehow a Past," his draft autobiography, 1933
Portrait of Berlin, 1913, Marsden Hartley
Hartley went to Europe to expand his art horizons with the financial support of his New York dealer and friend, gallery director Alfred Stieglitz. Hartley was briefly in Paris, where he met Gertrude Stein and through her, Pablo Picasso. His closest friends were two young Germans who embraced a joie de vivre and enchanted Hartley—they were Arnold Rönnebeck, a sculptor, and his young cousin, Karl von Freyburg, a member of Kaiser Wilhelm's imperial cavalry. Before long, Hartley tired of Paris and followed Rönnebeck to his family home in Berlin, where the American found that the modern German way of life, under the sway of the Kaiser's splendid and spirited military machine, suited him perfectly. Hartley lived in the imperial German capital from May 1913 to December 1915, a stay that extended well into the period of war in Europe.
"Hartley adopts Germany!," 1913,  Lee Simonson
The adoration of military men quickly came to occupy the center of Hartley's life and art in Berlin. His long-time American friend Lee Simonson (1888-1967) drew this cartoon of Hartley, showing just how thoroughly German and marshal in spirit he had become. "Of course the military system is accountable for many things, and to some this military element is objectionable," Hartley wrote to American painter Rockwell Kent, "but it stimulates my child's love for the public spectacle—and such wonderful specimens of health these men are—thousands, all so blond and radiant." Hartley's fascination with Germany had little or nothing to do with politics and nationhood and everything to do with sensual delights.
Military Symbols 1, ca. 1913-14, Marsden Hartley
"Berlin is color contrast," Hartley wrote to Alfred Stieglitz of his first impressions of the city in 1913, "owing chiefly of course to the military design which dominates it. From these sensations I hope to produce something in time." In the military regalia and symbols that were everywhere around him, Hartley found the perfect melding of formal abstraction and meaning. In graphic color patterns he re-created the visual sensations of modern military parades while also evoking their heroic tradition in dynamic compositions of simple bold stripes and checkerboard patterns that recall pennants and medals.
Photo: Jamison Miller
Himmel, ca. 1914-1915, Marsden Hartley
Once Germany declared war on France and Russia in August 1914, the character of Hartley's German designs changed, and the proud symbols of the German military had new somber associations for him. The young German soldiers were, in Hartley's view, valiant in their sense of duty and victims of the world's competing imperialist forces. "It is truly heartrending to see Germany's marvelous youth going off to a horrible death," Hartley wrote to Alfred Stieglitz. "This has been the dreadful vision—seeing these thousands simply walk out of homes leaving wives and children and all—never to return—and going too with a real ecstasy . . . one shall not forget these handsome faces going by—waving hands, throwing kisses and shouting auf Wiedersehen. Now already many are silent and will remain so forever—and many are coming back broken wickedly. All this in our modern day!" Hartley honored these young German men with a visionary series on "Himmel" and "Holle," the heaven and hell that are the soldier's fate: to live nobly and die valiantly.

Elegies to Karl von Freyburg

Prussian officer on horseback, n.d., Oscar Streich
My dear Stieglitz—Doubtless you may have heard . . . of that great grief I have—the loss of one of the dearest friends I ever had—Lieut. V. Freyburg. . . . If there was ever a true representative of all that is lovely and splendid in the German soul and character it was this fellow. At the age of 24, perfectly equipped for a life of joy and strength and beauty.

—Marsden Hartley, in a letter to Alfred Stieglitz, March 15, 1915.

The war in Europe became suddenly deeply personal for Hartley. On October 7, 1914, Hartley's adored friend, Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg, was killed in France. Hartley loved von Freyburg—perhaps they even had a physical love relationship. He certainly loved the ideal of youth and beauty that von Freyburg embodied. Rönnebeck gave Hartley the shoulder straps from von Freyburg's uniform and the Iron Cross that he had been awarded for bravery. Over the next months, Hartley considered the horrors of war through the wasteful death of this one beautiful young German man. His intense grief fed an equally intense surge of creativity as he obsessively worked the elements of the young cavalryman's uniform into a series of deeply moving laments.

Found among Hartley's personal papers, this photograph likely shows Karl von Freyburg.
Portrait of a German Officer, 1914, Marsden Hartley
Possibly the first of what would be a series of war time elegies is the canvas Hartley titled Portrait of a German Officer. The complex arrangement of symbols might refer generally to any German cavalryman, but the painting includes elements that identify von Freyburg specifically. We see the Iron Cross, details of a uniform, a helmet, and a cavalryman's spur. Von Freyburg's initials are inscribed on a kind a breast plate. There are still undecipherable numerological symbols in the painting, but the number 24 relates to von Freyburg's age at his death. This emblematic portrait is constructed like an ancient Germanic armorial or heraldic device on a field of black, the color of mourning.

Hartley's close friend from Berlin, Arnold Rönnebeck, once wrote that he had seen Hartley at work on the Portrait of a German Officer in the winter of 1914-15. He explained the obscure motifs:

There is a very personal and emotional connection between this picture and myself, because I am partly symbolized in it. I am one half of the Prussian Officer. The other half is a cousin of mine. . . Rather dominating is the Iron Cross. My cousin was killed in action in France on the 24th of October, 1914 (24). He was an active officer in the 4th regiment of the Kaiser's guards (center) 4 on blue ground (of shoulder straps). He received the Iron Cross a day before his death. Next to the 4 is an E and I am certain that it. . . stands for Queen Elisabeth of Greece or the patroness of the third regiment of the grand-grenadiers in which I then served. The E appears again in the lower middle right on my "full-dress epaulettes" and the long tassels next to 24 represent the heavy silver-wire tassels I wore as an aide-de-camp in the guards. In the lower left corner we distinguish the initials K.V.F. My cousin's name was Karl Von Freyburg. The triangle symbolized the friendship and the understanding between three men: Hartley, Karl V. Freyburg and myself.

—Arnold Rönnebeck, in a letter to collector Duncan Phillips, after 1943.

Hartley mysteriously called the painting in SAM's collection simply Painting Number 49, Berlin—his numbered canvases had more to do with numerology than with a chronological or programmatic sequencing of the German paintings. In the painting are many of the same elements that appear in Portrait of a German Officer, but they have been arranged in a composition that is now cruciform. The helmet is suspended at upper center above the Iron Cross, and above the helmet is a halo-like sunburst surrounding a thorny red crownlike ball. The composition is richly colored a blood red. The whole is set against a field of dazzling silver white—this is the only canvas in Hartley's series of elegies to von Freyburg that has a white and not a black background. Possibly this canvas has its basis in a dream vision that Hartley said he had wherein von Freyburg appeared to him in an aura of brilliant white light wearing a soldier's uniform, but one purged of all military significance, a uniform of white.

New York Faces War With Germany

New York Times Front Page on Sinking of Lusitania, May 8, 1915
On May 7, 1915, Americans witnessed the worst act of terrorism that the modern world had ever known: the sinking of the British luxury liner the Lusitania by a terrifying new weapon, a torpedo from a German submarine. The Lusitania had been en route from New York to Liverpool with some 2,500 passengers and crew on board, and it was hit without warning off the coast of Ireland. The victims were noncombatants-men, women, and children—and 127 of them were Americans. In the aftershock of the tragedy, many Americans immediately pushed for entering the war against Germany, while many others wanted nothing at all to do with further violence. In between these two extremes lay the majority of Americans, who, as one contemporary historian has described them, "felt shock and anger which they wished to express as loudly as possible so long as it did not lead to war."
Flags on the Waldorf, 1916, Childe Hassam
There were important reasons why the American flag was a potent symbol of solidarity during the increasingly tense months following the sinking of the Lusitania. The United States was then, as now, a nation of immigrants, and it was difficult for many to harbor resentment of their German-born countrymen. Also in the air was a very real fear that war in Europe would tear America apart at home, as national allegiances among immigrant groups were tested. To a diverse population the American flag was a visible reminder of its shared identity.

Flag waving became more fervent through the early spring of 1916 as the country faced the first anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, still with no restitution for lives lost. Adding to the overwhelming frustration of a population whose patience with Germany was wearing thin was the increasing fear that such an act would surely occur again if Germany could not be made to acknowledge its murderous act and swear off any further acts of aggression against noncombatants on the seas. Americans believed they could not be safe at sea, and with that feeling resentment toward Germany grew ever stronger and more public. So volatile was the atmosphere in New York on the eve of the first anniversary of the Lusitania tragedy that nervous officials cancelled the long-planned memorial service for the ship's victims that was to be held at New York's Carnegie Hall on the night of May 7, 1916.
Thomas Edison (at left) with members of the Naval Consulting Board in a Preparedness Parade, New York City, 1916
Flag waving became more fervent through the early spring of 1916 as the country faced the first anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, still with no restitution for lives lost. Adding to the overwhelming frustration of a population whose patience with Germany was wearing thin was the increasing fear that such an act would surely occur again if Germany could not be made to acknowledge its murderous act and swear off any further acts of aggression against noncombatants on the seas. Americans believed they could not be safe at sea, and with that feeling resentment toward Germany grew ever stronger and more public. So volatile was the atmosphere in New York on the eve of the first anniversary of the Lusitania tragedy that nervous officials cancelled the long-planned memorial service for the ship's victims that was to be held at New York's Carnegie Hall on the night of May 7, 1916.
Photograph of Preparedness Day Parade from above 5th Avenue, New York, May 14, 1916
Preparedness—and specifically Preparedness Day, set for New York on May 14, 1916—was President Woodrow Wilson's plan to calm fears and defuse anger as the anniversary of the Lusitania sinking approached. He fired up citizen soldiers with the idea of preparedness—with the idea that all would prepare for any assault on their home turf, for the U.S. would not engage Germany unless Germany attacked first. Even in a city famous for parades, the New York Preparedness Day Parade surely must stand as possibly the largest ever mounted there. More than 137,000 people marched—laborers, businessmen, teachers, mothers, engineers. (We see the engineers here, with Thomas Edison marching at the center.) The Preparedness Day parade lasted almost thirteen hours. For all the diversity of interests represented among the marchers, there was to be no sign of individual or group identity shown; official regulations stipulated that, "there will be no display of banners and no advertisements of any sort carried—only the American flag." This was a show of unity, and with nearly 140,000 marchers and well more than a million on-lookers compressed into one stretch of Fifth Avenue, there was understandable fear of what might happen with even the slightest provocation.
Photograph of building at 291 Fifth Ave., 1917, Paul Strand
The photographer and art impresario Alfred Stieglitz probably watched the Preparedness Day Parade from his place on the top floor of the unremarkable commercial building that was 291 Fifth Avenue. Here were the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, as Stieglitz had named his enterprise, but the gallery came to be known best simply by its address, 291. Stieglitz would have had a great view of the Preparedness Day event—his gallery was located right above parade central, on Fifth Avenue between Thirtieth and Thirty-first Streets, just three blocks south of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, the American flag-draped entrance of which was painted by Child Hassam at this same time.

In what has to be one of the worst cases of timing for any artist in history, Stieglitz had on view at his gallery, 291, from April 4 through May 22—running concurrently with the world observance of the anniversary of the Lusitania tragedy and the Preparedness Day Parade—an exhibition of the new German paintings by his friend Marsden Hartley, who was just back in New York from his two-year sojourn in Berlin.
Detail, 2001.1067
Hartley's German paintings were obscure. These abstractions represented Hartley's private visual language. Realizing that his art was not welcome in the United States in 1916 as anti-German sentiment was building, and that he was forced by social pressures to hide the joy of life and joy of the love that had inspired these tributes to a fallen German officer, Hartley decided to do the expedient thing and walk away from them: he chose not to make any personal association with them, even though they had been inspired by a deeply held personal love and loss. His catalogue introduction for the show at 291 gallery offered this matter-of-fact statement about the paintings on view—a statement that denied any hidden meaning within the compositions:

The Germanic group is but a part of a series which I had contemplated of movements in various areas of war activity. . . . The forms are only those which I have observed casually from day to day. There is no hidden symbolism whatsoever in them; there is no slight intention of that anywhere. Things under observation, just pictures of any day, any hour. I have expressed only what I have seen. They are merely consultation of the eye. . . my notion of the purely pictural.

The Making of Hartley's German Paintings

[I]n 1916, I went in [to the gallery "291"] alone to see the Hartley show. It was his war pictures and was like a brass band in a small closet.

— Georgia O'Keeffe, in a remembrance, 1978
Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1936
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, LC-USZ62-42493


Curator Patricia Junker, Former Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, Seattle Art Museum, on this painting by Marsden Hartley


Exhibition History{Berlin, Germany, Münchener Graphik-Verlag. [Forty-five paintings and a group of drawings, executed in Europe after Oct. 1912], Oct. 1915.}

New York, New York, The Little Galleries of the Photo Secession, 291, Exhibition of Paintings by Marsden Hartley, Apr. 4 - May 22, 1916.

Albion, Michigan, Albion College, Marsden Hartley: A Retrospective Exhibition Lent by Hudson D. Walker of New York, Apr. 15 - 30, 1950. Checklist no. 6.

New York, New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, Marsden Hartley: The Berlin Period 1913-1915: Abstract Oils and Drawings, Jan. 3 - 29, 1955. Checklist no. 5.

Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Art Galleries, 1957 - 1958 [extended loan].

Ogunquit, Maine, Museum of Art of Ogunquit, Sixth Annual Exhibition, June 28 - Sept.8, 1958. Cat. no. 22.

Chicago, Illinois Institute of Technology, The Maremont Collection at the Institute of Design, Apr. 5 - 30, 1961. Cat. no. 38, reproduced.

Washington, D.C., Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Treasures of Twentieth Century Art from the Maremont Collection at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Apr. 2 - May 3, 1964. Cat. no. 47, reproduced.

Phoenix, Arizona, Phoenix Art Museum, Classics of Contemporary Art from the Maremont Collection, 1968. Cat. no. 14, reproduced.

Edinburgh, Scotland, Royal Scottish Academy, under the auspices of the Arts Council of Great Britain, The Modern Spirit: American Paintings 1908-1935, Aug. 20 - Sept. 11, 1977 (London, England, Hayward Art Gallery, Sept. 28 - Nov. 20, 1977). Cat. no. 40, reproduced p. 10.

Düsseldorf, Germany, Städtische Kunsthalle, 2 Jahrzehnte amerikanische Malerei 1920-1940, June 8 - Aug. 5, 1979 (Zurich, Switzerland, Kunsthaus Zurich, Aug. 23 - Oct. 21,1979; Brussels, Belgium, Palais de Beaux-Arts, Nov. 15 - Dec. 31, 1979). Cat. no. 26, pp. 60, 62, reproduced p. 26.

New York, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Marsden Hartley, Mar. 4 - May 25, 1980 (Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago, June 10 - Aug. 3; Fort Worth, Texas, Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, Sept. 5 - Oct. 26; Berkeley, California, University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley, Nov. 12, 1980 - Jan. 4, 1981). Text by Barbara Haskell. Cat. no. 30, pp. 44, 215, reproduced pl. 81, p. 156.

Saint Louis, Missouri, Saint Louis Museum of Art, The Ebsworth Collection: American Modernism, 1911-1947, Nov. 20, 1987 - Jan. 3, 1988 (Honolulu, Hawaii, Honolulu Academy of Arts, Feb. 3, 1988 - Mar. 15, 1988; Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts. Apr. 6 - June 5, 1988). Text by Charles E. Buckley, William C. Agee, and John R. Lane. Cat. no. 31, pp. 13, 18-20, 33,106-107, 207-208, reproduced p. 107.

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Twentieth Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, Mar. 5 - June 11, 2000 (Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Aug. 10 - Nov. 12, 2000). Text by Bruce Robertson, et al. Cat. no. 27, pp.16, 126-127, 285, reproduced pp. 6 (detail) and 127.

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and his New York Galleries, Jan. 28 - Apr. 22, 2001. Text by Sarah Greenough, et al. No cat. no., pp. 235, 532, reproduced pl. 72, p. 234.

Hartford, Connecticut, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Marsden Hartley, Jan. 17 - Apr. 20, 2003 (Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, June 7 - Sept.7, 2003; Kansas City, Missouri, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Oct. 11 - Jan.11, 2004). Text by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, et al. Cat. no. 21, pp. 296-297, reproduced p. 91.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, SAM at 75: Building a Collection for Seattle, May 5 - Sept. 9, 2007. No catalogue.

Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Marsden Hartley: The German Paintings, 1913-1915, Aug. 3 - Nov. 30, 2014.* Text by Dieter Scholz et al. No cat. no., p. 124, listed p. 204, reproduced p. 87. [*organized by Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, but shown In Los Angeles only.]

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, From New York to Seattle: Case Studies in American Abstraction and Realism, Jan. 15, 2020 - June 5, 2022 [on view Jan. 15, 2020 - Mar. 13, 2022].

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, American Art: The Stories We Carry, Oct. 20, 2022 - ongoing.
Published ReferencesGetlein, Frank. "Art and Artists: A Wide Variety in Maremont Show," The [Washington, D.C.] Sunday Star, April 5, 1964, C5, reproduced.

Levin, Gail. "Hidden Symbolism in Marsden Hartley's Military Pictures," Arts Magazine 54, no. 2 (October 1979): pp. 154, 156-157, reproduced fig. 2 [as Berlin Abstraction].

cf. Barry, Roxanna. 'The Age of Blood and Iron," Arts Magazine 54, no. 2 (October 1979): p. 171.

Robinson, William H. "Marsden Hartley's Military," The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 76, no. 1 (January 1989): pp. 12-15, reproduced.

McDonnell, Patricia. Dictated by Life: Marsden Hartley's German Paintings and Robert Indiana's Hartley Elegies. Exh. cat. Minneapolis: Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, 1995; reproduced plate 47.

Ngo, Dung., ed., with essay by Franklin Kelly. Art + Architecture: The Ebsworth Collection + Residence. San Francisco: William Stout Publishers, 2006; n.p., reproduced.

Ishikawa, Chiyo. "SAM at 75: Building a Collection for Seattle," SAMconnects 21, no. 2 (Spring 2007): p. 13, reproduced p. 12.

Junker, Patricia. "New York Stories," in A Community of Collectors: 75th Anniversary Gifts to the Seattle Art Museum. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2008; p. 203, reproduced p. 202, pl. 170.

Junker, Patricia. "A Sense of Place." The Magazine Antiques 174, no. 5 (November 2008): p. 115, reproduced p. 90.

Junker, Patricia. "Childe Hassam, Marsden Hartley, and the Spirit of 1916." American Art 24, no. 3 (Fall 2010): pp. 41-47, reproduced p. 42, fig. 12, and cover.

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