The Iron Cross is an example of Marsden Hartley's innovative style of emblematic portraiture, in which the artist painted symbols and objects to evoke associations with an individual's character rather than rendering a representational likeness. From a series called the German Officer paintings, Iron Cross is a tribute to two of Hartley's German companions, both soldiers and casualties of World War I. The painting is replete with references and symbols. The black and white cross on red within a green circle at the top of the painting indicates the Iron Cross award both soldiers received; the cross motif is repeated in reverse colors just below it. The black and white checkerboard at the bottom symbolizes one soldier's love of chess, and the red "4" on a blue ground above what appear to be buttons from a military uniform indicates the other soldier's regiment number. Additional references to uniform decorations are found within the large, red wreath in the center of the image. Influenced by German Expressionism, Hartley used broad, thick brushwork and simple but intense color schemes and patterns, all set against a stark, black background. Hartley's combination of Expressionist handling with Cubist techniques, such as the fragmentation and overlapping of forms, brought him critical acclaim for synthesizing these two dominant modernist tendencies.