Abstraction, c. 1914
Marsden Hartley, American, 1877–1943
Oil on paperboard, mounted on panel
24 1/2 × 20 in. (62.2 × 50.8 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph O'Connor in honor of Mr. and Mrs. George R. Brown

Habits of Mind

  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications

Practicing Map Skills

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Physical Geography–Natural Environment






Social Studies



Connecting to the Work of Art

When renowned modern art collector Gertrude Stein visited Marsden Hartley’s studio in Paris, she exclaimed, “At last…an original American!” Painted in Berlin on the eve of World War I, Abstraction reflects the energy, dynamism, and promise of the era. Broad planes of flat, unmixed, yet vibrant color—a palette of primary and secondary colors— dominate the canvas and create vitality in this work of art.


The bold, clearly defined geometric shapes appear to push and pull against each other. This interaction makes it unclear whether elements are coming towards the viewer or receding back, and provide the work with a sense of coordinated movement. The dense, overlapping concentric circles, rectangles, curves, and zigzags build upon one another into a pyramid-like arrangement. This organization balances the composition and references classical painting structures, but the boldness of the shapes and colors make Abstraction strikingly modern.


Although his paintings were abstract, Hartley maintained that they were merely reconstructions of observed patterns and images from real life. The blue and white zigzag at the apex of the painting is suggestive of a snowcapped mountain, a motif prevalent in Hartley’s work throughout his career. Additionally, the stripes and disks that dominate the composition are reminiscent of military pageantry and German military regalia—objects that would have been a part of Hartley’s everyday visual vocabulary at the time he painted this work.  While vague renderings of bright flags, uniform insignia, and military emblems can be made out, the main subject remains the relationship between color and form.


When Hartley arrived in Europe in 1912, he quickly found himself surrounded and inspired by a thriving, innovative art community. Although he had been exposed to Modernist works prior to his visit, his tenure in Europe provided him with a visual and theoretical awakening that influenced the development of his own style. This painting illustrates the artist’s evolving personal method, which combined the tightly structured arrangement of Cubism’s flat planes, Orphism’s eye-catching geometric figures, and Expressionism’s dramatic color and loose brushwork. This synchronized style allowed Hartley to create a work that was both structured and expressive, and highlights the relationships of line to motion and color to emotion.


  • What words would you use to describe the shapes in this painting?
  • Notice the colors used throughout this work. Are they warm or cool colors? How does the artist’s choice to use both warm and cool colors create a sense of chaos within the composition?
  • How do the dynamic brushstrokes and broad planes of flat, unmixed color energize the composition?
  • How would you describe the tone of this work? Use evidence from the work of art to support your reasoning.
  • How does the artist create a sense of energy in the work?
  • Describe how the shapes are arranged within the composition. How does the artist create disorder for the viewers through the display of the shapes?
  • While at first glance this work appears to be abstract, it is in fact based on observed patterns and images from real life. What real life objects do you think could be included in this composition?
  • How would this work be different if the artist only used two or three colors?
  • While the color and shapes create a tone of dynamism, how does the artist add a sense of structure to the composition? Notice the pyramidal arrangement of objects. Why do you think stability is important within the scene?



  • This work was painted around 1914 in Berlin on the eve of World War I. How could this work reflect a viewpoint of the time period during which it was created?
  • How does the artist project a sense of hopefulness and the promise of the era into the work of art?
  • Why do you think the artist intentionally created a sense of confusion through the use of jarring color and harsh shapes?
  • How does this underlying tone of disorder counteract the sense of optimism in the painting?
  • While this work does include recognizable shapes and objects, many scholars believe this work is a study of the relationship between color and form. How would this work be different if viewers could more easily recognize the objects?
  • Even though the artist includes recognizable signs and symbols, the objects and figures are highly abstracted. What is your theory on why the artist included recognizable figures at all? Explain your reasoning.
  • The blue and white zigzag at the apex of the painting is suggestive of a snowcapped mountain, while the stripes and disks that dominate the composition are reminiscent of military pageantry and German military regalia. How does knowing what the objects represent change your opinion of the work of art?
  • Considering the elements and tone of this work of art, do you think that the artist is highlighting military pageantry, or critiquing it? Explain your answer.

Connecting to the Classroom

  • To what extent might this work of art be similar to a map? What essential elements may a cartographer include in this painting to give it meaning?
  • Using your knowledge of physical geography, which patterns do you see in the painting that could be associated with a natural feature (such as valleys, etc.)?


  • Ask students to re-imagine the painting as a newly discovered continent and debate which elements of a physical or political map would best complete it.

Subject Matter Connection

In the discipline of Social Studies, students need to be able to think conceptually and differentiate between which patterns and ideas are common across societies. Students need to be able to recognize those ideas—whether economic, social, and or/political—that are not bound by time and place, and how a group’s perspective may affect the historical interpretation of those ideas/principles.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.