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Marsden Hartley, Painting Number 5 | Video in American Sign Language

An educator discusses Painting Number 5 by Marsden Hartley in the exhibition Where We Are: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900–1960.

Marsden Hartley created a series a paintings with war motifs. He was fascinated not only by war but by the pageantry and decoration displayed in the pre-war German Empire. In 1913 he wrote, "The military life adds so much in the way of a sense of perpetual gaiety here in Berlin." He had fallen in love with a young German lieutenant, Karl Von Freyburg, who unfortunately passed away at the onset of World War I. 

Made at a time when people could not openly disclose their same sex desire, this painting is a portrait of Von Freyberg in code. The details included are an Iron Cross medal like Von Freyburg’s own, epaulets and brass buttons from his uniform, and a chessboard that refers to the soldier’s favorite game. Hartley combined the splintered abstraction of Cubism with the mystical overtones of German Expressionism.