“Dogtown looks like a cross between Easter Island and Stonehenge – essentially druidic in its appearance – it gives the feeling that an ancient race might turn up at any moment and renew an ageless rite there. Dogtown is therefore not the ground for sketch artists and that is why they never go there – much too eternal looking for the common eye.”
So wrote artist/poet Marsden Hartley of the strange 3,600 acres of woods, moor, boulder fields and abandoned 18th century cellar holes in Gloucester, Massachusetts known as Dogtown in his autobiography Somehow a Past.
Marsden Hartley was born in Lewiston, Maine, in 1877 and died in Ellsworth, Maine, in 1943. A sad, restless man, he spent much of his life wandering the world in search of inspiration and rest. He had been living and traveling in Europe before he settled down for a few months in 1931 in Gloucester to draw and paint the haunting, primal Dogtown landscape that had resonated with his metaphysical soul when he first saw it in 1920. Hartley would spend July through December of 1931 in Gloucester and return to Dogtown again in the summer of 1934 before wandering off to Nova Scotia and back to Maine.
Marsden Hartley: Soliloquy in Dogtown at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester (through October 14) gathers 13 oil paintings and a dozen drawings Hartley did of Dogtown on his various visits. The title of the exhibition is taken from a poem Hartley wrote in 1931 and is the same title used for a similar exhibition back in 1985.
Dogtown, in the Gloucester-Rockport interior of Cape Ann, was a colonial settlement of some 100 families that was abandoned over time, the last inhabitant being hauled off to the poorhouse in 1830. Regarded as the province of vagabonds, prostitutes, witches and feral dogs, Dogtown is just the sort of place that fires the artist’s imagination. Not only did Hartley created several series of works inspired by the barren landscape, Dogtown is also the imaginative setting of much of poet Charles Olson’s epic three-volume Maximus Poems, (some of which he wrote sitting on a tree stump in Dogtown) and that of Anita Diamant’s 2005 novel The Last Days of Dogtown.
Hartley’s interpretation of Dogtown runs toward the Expressionist take on regionalism that defined his later work, the heaviness of both the Expressionist style and palette and of the Dogtown erratics worked out in bold, black outline. His drawings sketch the scruffy contours of the twisted and torqued landscape with particular attention to local landmarks such as the Whale’s Jaw, a split pair of boulders that resemble the maw of a leviathan.
Hartley scholar Gail R. Scott summed up the seminal importance of the Dogtown landscape to Hartley’s later work very nicely in her 1988 Marsden Hartley.
“At Dogtown,” Scott wrote, “he learned that New England was not necessarily mountains and trees, tourists and Yankee tradesmen; he also learned that place is not a static mental or perceptual construct converted to paint and canvas. Place is the vehicle by which the artist moves out from his own creative center to discern the universal truths of man and his environment.”
The late work that proved to be Hartley’s most original and personal, evocations of the peoples, places and things of Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, and Corea, Maine, spring straight out of the shallow soil of Dogtown.
The Cape Ann Museum has a full schedule of programs and events surrounding the Hartley in Dogtown show. This is a New England must this summer.
[Cape Ann Museum, 27 Pleasant St., Gloucester MA. 978-283-0455 x11.]