Marsden Hartley

Painting, Number 5

Not on view



Oil on linen

Overall: 39 1/4 × 32in. (99.7 × 81.3 cm)

Accession number

Credit line
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of an anonymous donor

Rights and reproductions
© artist or artist’s estate


Marsden Hartley created Painting, Number 5, one of a series of War Motifs, during an extended stay in Berlin. Hartley was fascinated by the military pageantry of pre-war imperial Germany, and fragments of flags, banners, medals, and insignia crowd the surface of his canvases. "The military life adds so much in the way of a sense of perpetual gaiety here in Berlin," he wrote in 1913. The outbreak of World War I deeply troubled Hartley, however, and he was devastated by the death of Karl von Freyburg, a young German lieutenant with whom he had fallen in love. This work blends the splintered abstraction of Cubism with the mystical overtones of German Expressionism to conjure a symbolic portrait of Hartley’s fallen friend: included are an Iron Cross medal, epaulets, and brass buttons from his uniform, a chessboard that refers to his favorite game, and the number eight, a symbol of transcendence.

Visual Description

Marsden Hartley’sPainting, Number 5(1914–15) is an oil painting on linen. The work measures 39 1/4th inches in height and 32 inches in width. It measures 99.7 centimeters in height and 81.3 centimeters in width.

This painting is filled with fragments of military pageantry that include banners, flags, medals, buttons, epaulets and symbols that are incorporated into an abstract composition. The fragments are subsumed into the shapes, patterns and colors of the overall work. We focus first on a round shape, which sits a little off-center within the painting’s overall composition. In its black circular center is a red cross, whose four arms are of equal length that get wider at the ends. It is surrounded by two outer circular bands: one is white and wide followed by a thin green outline. This circular shape overlaps another circular shape containing a black iron cross. It is placed within a red circle with a wide, golden band around its circumference.

Partially obstructed by these two circular shapes is a pole—yellow and black in color—that rises to the top of the painting and angles to our right. The lower part of the pole does not extend to the bottom of the painting. Black and white lines are attached to the pole and fan out to our right;  they bear a resemblance to a flag fluttering in the wind though its stripes are partially hidden by the circular framed crosses.

As we work our way to the bottom half of the painting below the crosses, we can see  rectangular shapes of military medals, red ribboned with yellow medals. A fragment of the number “8” slides into view while to our right there is the checkered pattern of a chess board that we gaze down upon. (The artist has placed us in this position.) Epaulet-like shapes and designs that resemble military buttons are scattered and inserted in a composition dominated by curved bands of color and angled stripes that extend to the edges of the canvas. Vertical shapes reference flag poles. Imagine being inside a parade—jostled by military paraphilia—uniforms, flags, banners and crowds. The artist achieves this through his use of recognizable fragments and differing shapes that fill the canvas. Hartley’s palette employs bright reds, dirty yellows, milky whites set off by dark areas—all applied in a chewy painterly style.