All posts in “American Modernism”

Painting Number 49, Berlin

Object of the Week: Painting Number 49, Berlin

This Object of the Week is inspired by SAM’s special tour series, part of “For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative,” which features programming held at arts institutions across the US to create civic dialogue about the 2018 midterm elections. Reflecting on artwork and exhibitions on view at SAM, staff members are presenting in-gallery tours that consider each of the four freedoms and connect to contemporary society.

“For Freedoms,” a collaborative project founded by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, is inspired by artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” (1941)—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

This week’s post by SAM staff member Rachel Eggers explores freedom of speech in the work of Marsden Hartley.

Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) was an innovative Modernist artist, incorporating elements of abstraction, Expressionism, Cubism, and Primitivism in his paintings. Born in Lewiston, Maine, Hartley is known for expressive visions of his home state, including landscapes and portraits of fisherman.

But Hartley was more than a regionalist. Perhaps his most intriguing body of work is his “German officer paintings,” created while living in Berlin from 1914 to 1915. SAM has one of these extraordinary paintings in its collection, and Painting Number 49, Berlin is now on view in tribute to the late arts patron and collector, Barney A. Ebsworth, who gifted it to the museum. The painting’s thick brushstrokes, vivacious primary colors, and mysterious abstracted symbolism reveal an artist enraptured and enrapturing, enticing the viewer with a deeply personal vision that melds the physical and spiritual—and, sometimes uncomfortably, the political.

Hartley arrived in Berlin in May 1913, though it felt to the artist like a homecoming. The imperial German capital was a hub of industrial innovation and social life; it also had a relatively liberal attitude toward homosexuality. He was delighted by the city’s grand military parades, with their ostentatious display of banners, flags, plumage, and men on white horses. In them, he saw a heroic ideal of Man.

He had befriended a Prussian officer named Karl von Freyburg, who may have been the love of his life. When von Freyburg died in battle at the age of 24, Hartley plunged into a deep grief—and eventually to the creation of this fascinating series of paintings.

Painting Number 49, Berlin is exuberant, loose, and colorful—but, at its heart, it’s a memorial portrait rendered in abstracted symbols. At the center is the Iron Cross, the medal for bravery that von Freyburg was awarded. There’s an officer’s plumed helmet and epaulets; the number “24” refers to Karl’s age when he was killed. Across the bottom blooms a setting sun, radiating red: the color of martyrdom.

The painting bursts with uncomfortable—even heartbreaking—tensions between youth and death, the state and the individual, openness and restriction, color and darkness. Unable to express his sexuality and his love, Hartley turns to a network of symbols and signs. In his unimaginable grief, he merges the physical, the spiritual—and of course, the political—inventing a highly personal visual language.

–Rachel Eggers, Manager of Public Relations

Image: Painting Number 49, Berlin, 1914-15, Marsden Hartley, oil on canvas, 47 x 39 1/2 in., Partial and promised gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2001.1067.
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A Lasting Echo: Barney Ebsworth (1934–2018)

Seattle and the nation have lost a great businessman, arts patron, and collector. The Seattle Art Museum community was saddened by the news that longtime museum Trustee, Barney A. Ebsworth passed away on April 9. Barney was one of the top art collectors in the country, a supporter and advocate for great art, and a generous philanthropist.

Collecting became a way of life for Barney as he focused on great works worthy of a museum. He honed his eye for art by visiting the Louvre museum in Paris every weekend when he was stationed with the army in France during the 1950s. With works from Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley, to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Jasper Johns, Barney built one of the most significant collections of American Modernism in the world. In a 2009 article, he said:

Before I bought a picture, I wanted to know two things: do I really understand this artist, and do I know where he or she was really best in his or her career? If I don’t, I probably shouldn’t be buying. So it’s been a lifetime study.”

Fortunately for all, Barney was exceptional in his study, and from the start he was committed to sharing his remarkable collection with others. In 1996, SAM first showed paintings from the Ebsworth Collection as part of a traveling exhibition. At the time, Barney was still living in his hometown of St. Louis where he had founded numerous travel companies including INTRAV, Royal Cruise Line, and Clipper Cruise Line. In addition to businesses in real estate and venture capital, he was the angel investor in Build A Bear Workshop.

In the summer of 2000, SAM welcomed Twentieth Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, a major exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art. It was the first chance for Seattle to see the collection in its entirety and before the year was out, Barney joined SAM’s Board of Trustees.

As a member of SAM’s board, Barney brought a wealth of experience. He served as a dedicated Trustee of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and Honolulu Museum of Art. He was also a member of the Trustees Council and Co-Chairman of the Collectors Committee at the National Gallery of Art. At SAM, Barney was as an officer; an active member of the Committee on Collections; and served as co-chair of the 75th Anniversary Acquisitions Committee. He was a generous contributor to our major campaigns, including SAM Transformation—for which the museum named its double-height gallery in his honor—and most recently the Fund for Special Exhibitions. He gifted or pledged many works of art to SAM and helped with the purchase of many others. Of course, Seattleites may know him best for his gift of the monumental sculpture Echo, Jaume Plensa’s four-story head, serenely looking out towards the Olympic Mountains from the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Barney Ebsworth had a fun sense of style, a quick wit and loved telling jokes. Nothing brought him more joy than traveling with his family, and introducing someone to a new place or introducing them to art. SAM mourns the loss of a great friend, but Seattle will continue to cherish Barney’s generosity and the art he championed that enriches our city’s culture.

Image: Bettina Hansen  / The Seattle Times
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