Handsome Drinks
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Germany infatuated Marsden Hartley, especially during wartime.

In the early 1910s, the American artist fell in love with Berlin, European cafe culture, and the brigade of tall, blond troops. He gushes about German hotties in his autobiography, describing their outfits,“white leather breeches skin tight...those gleaming blinding medieval breastplates of silver...there was six foot of youth under all this garniture."

Handsome Drinks is an ode to Hartley’s time in Europe, painted right after WWI forced his retreat to the United States. During the 1910s, Germany was at the forefront of a sexual revolution, and even though the law considered homosexuality a crime, the 40 gay clubs in Berlin were an open secret that was tolerated by the police. The Kaiser and his friends were known for their countryside get-togethers in which they would dress up as ballerinas, and sexual acts between soldiers was dismissed as being the norm. Hartley’s gay heart sang, enchanted by the force and virility of the soldiers, who also happened to make up the clientele of many of the gay clubs.

Few details are known for sure about Hartley’s private life, but his infatuation with German men was clearly depicted in his art, as well as the letters that he sent home to friends. One soldier in particular stole Hartley’s heart; a cousin of an artist friend, Karl Von Freyburg. Scholars aren’t sure whether Hartley’s affection for Von Freyburg was reciprocated, but Hartley’s bleeding heart shows in symbols and letters in work painted upon his stateside return and von Freyburg’s death in battle. It’s likely that the mysterious letters in Handsome Drinks is yet another homage to his deceased lover, or maybe to his favorite city.
Hartley’s fervent passion for Germany came in a difficult political climate in the US, leading some to wonder whether his gallery exhibition in the famous Gallery 291 was an act of defiance. President Roosevelt’s speeches that encouraged Americans to renounce all loyalties to their previous homelands made the romanticized German state in Hartley’s work look suspicious. Whether Hartley wanted to ruffle some feathers or merely meant to paint an homage to his love is still anyone’s guess. Maybe he just liked absinthe.



  1. TheAdvocateMag. "A Peek Inside Berlin's Queer Club Scene Before Hitler Destroyed It." ADVOCATE. July 19, 2016. Accessed August 31, 2018.
  2. Junker, Patricia. "Childe Hassam, Marsden Hartley, and the Spirit of 1916." American Art24, no. 3 (2010): 26-51. doi:10.1086/658208.
  3. "Marsden Hartley's Life and Legacy." The Art Story. Accessed August 31, 2018.
  4. Mcdonnell, Patricia. ""Essentially Masculine": Marsden Hartley, Gay Identity, and the Wilhelmine German Military." Art Journal56, no. 2 (1997): 62. doi:10.2307/777680.
  5. Smith, Roberta. "Marsden Hartley Gets His Due in Berlin." The New York Times. June 12, 2014. Accessed August 31, 2018.