Marsden Hartley Portrait, 1914-15
colorful collection of numbers and symbols
Marsden Hartley
Portrait, 1914-15
Oil on canvas, 321/4 x 211/2 in.


Marsden Hartley spent some of his favorite years living as a young man in Berlin, Germany, where he became close friends with a German soldier named Karl von Freyburg. On October 7, 1914, von Freyburg was killed in an early battle of World War I. To mourn his friend’s death, Hartley created a series of innovative paintings, including this one, to express his powerful feelings. Although this painting is an abstract arrangement of patterns, numbers, and shapes, it also is a symbolic portrait.

Here are some ideas about the personal meanings of the symbols Hartley used in this painting: The black cross in the lower center refers to the Iron Cross, a medal given to German soldiers for bravery which had been awarded to Karl von Freyburg shortly before his death. The “4” beneath the cross is both the number of von Freyburg’s regiment in the army and Hartley’s house number in Berlin. The “8” may refer to the eight-pointed stars that Hartley said he saw everywhere in Berlin. It and the number “9” may also refer to Hartley’s own code of magical, religious, and personal numbers and symbols.


Marsden Hartley experimented with ideas and styles of modern art in the beginning of the twentieth century. Born in Maine in 1877, he traveled widely through America and Europe. The places and the people he encountered in these travels affected his thinking about his art. Early in his career, Hartley wanted to capture the spiritual forces he felt in nature. (See his Landscape No 36, in this packet.) He experimented with many styles of painting from realism to abstraction-searching to express his ideas and emotions. In 1912 Hartley traveled to Paris, where his painting became increasingly abstract. He also began to make symbolic portraits. Instead of portraits that showed a person’s face or body, Hartley depicted objects, shapes, and colors associated with them. Forced to return to America during World War I, Hartley wandered and worked across North America and later returned to Europe, never settling too long in one place. He returned to more traditional, realistic styles of painting, making landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. Still, the themes of the power of nature and the loss of loved ones continued to appear in his work until his death in Maine in 1943.


Abstract – a style of art that does not directly mimic the appearance of objects from the natural world, but instead is composed of simplified shapes, forms, or color to express ideas, experience, or emotion.