Rachel Hartley was descended from an artistic family: her maternal grandfather was the acclaimed Tonalist landscape painter George Inness, and her father was sculptor Jonathan Scott Hartley, the primary founder of the Salmagundi Club. This distinguished lineage benefitted the New York City native’s future career. Following private schooling in nearby Montclair, Hartley was admitted to the Art Students League at the age seventeen—her application having been endorsed by her grandfather, as well as her father who was a member of the academy’s faculty. Her early professional pursuits concentrated on portraits, an avenue deemed acceptable for women artists at that time.

In 1916, Hartley—along with her brother, the botanist G. Inness Hartley and fellow artist Anna Heyward Taylor, whom she had met in Provincetown—accompanied noted ornithologist William Beebe to the jungles of British Guiana. Following this six-month experience as one of the expedition’s official artists, Hartley turned her focus to landscape painting. She frequently returned to tropical areas for inspiration. A 1926 exhibition at New York’s prestigious Macbeth Gallery—one of the few to exhibit work by living American artists—mounted a selection of landscapes and genre studies Hartley executed in Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. Historical accounts note that she made regular trips to Europe.

During her lifetime, Hartley maintained residences in New York City, Southampton on Long Island, and Florida. She repeatedly said that her “artistic career really began on a train bound for Tarpon Springs, Florida, with her grandparents” as she sketched the passing scenery to send home to her younger sister. As an adult, she made sketching forays in Virginia and South Carolina. Her paintings have a light touch, both in terms of palette, but also in mood. Imbued with local color, these Southern genre scenes were once described as the “rural equivalent of an Ashcan school subject.” She frequently painted pictures featuring peacocks, birds she encountered at the Seville Farm just outside of Clearwater and whose prized feathers were gathered for sale to the fashion industry.

Hartley was an active member of important art alliances on both the national and local levels. In 1918, she became a member of the Pen and Brush Club, a New York-based organization that fostered women artists and authors, including journalist Ida Tarbell who held the office of president for three decades. In addition, she was a member of the National Arts Club in New York, the Washington Arts Club, and the American Federation of Arts. In Florida, she was affiliated with the Florida Federation of Art and the Clearwater Art Club. The latter institution exhibited several of her painting in 1936; the selection included a variety of themes, ranging from Florida landscapes to large religious paintings. A critic of the show commented: “Miss Hartley’s use of lavender in [a painting of a lone pine] and in the treatment of religious subjects is a strongly characteristic feature.”