About the Work of Art:

Marsden Hartley (1877–1943)
American Indian Symbols, 1914
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas


Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), American Indian Symbols, 1914, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1999.8





Often during his career, Marsden Hartley incorporated mystical references and symbols into his art. Many times, these references were a condemnation of modern society and were derived from other cultures and religions that Hartley admired.

During his stay in Germany from 1913 to 1915, Hartley executed a group of paintings he called his “Amerika” paintings (he was using the German spelling). The paintings demonstrated the influence of the German expressionist style and were a reflection upon his native country and his identity as an American. These works combined abstract arrangements of colorful shapes, signs, and symbols drawn from German military pageants and Native American motifs that reflected his newly acquired interest in both subjects.

All the paintings in the series are romanticized fantasies of Native American themes. He conceived his “Amerika” series after having embraced the German expressionist painting style and after having seen a popular collection of Native American artifacts in the Berlin Ethnographic Museum.

Hartley was troubled by the greed of modern industrial society and saw the cure for corrupt civilization in the spiritualism of the “primitives.” Painted in bold, flat patterns, similar formal elements appear throughout the series: a centralized triangular tipi; brilliantly colored, striped, and circular forms; stylized seated figures with striped headdresses; and wheel-like star forms and broad blanket stripes suggesting Indian decoration. He also seems to have tailored his Native American abstractions to his German audience. Traveling Wild West shows and popular literature with romantic western themes had always been popular there. However, American Indian Symbols also includes decidedly German elements, most notably the military-inspired, black-and-white-checked banner along the right edge of the canvas.

Hartley created American Indian Symbols as one of the last paintings in the “Amerika” series in the summer of 1914. The three other major paintings in the “Amerika” series are Indian Fantasy, 1914 (North Carolina Museum of Art); Indian Composition, 1914 (Vassar College); and Painting No. 50, 1914 (Terra Museum of American Art). While Hartley was completing the series, Germany declared war on France. He continued working until October, when he learned that one of his closest friends, a young German soldier named Karl von Freyburg, had been killed in an early battle. Hartley was despondent about his friend’s death and almost immediately began a new series of paintings based on German military themes, partly in homage to his friend. The escalating war forced Hartley to return to New York in December 1915.

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