Marsden Hartley had first discovered Dogtown Common, a wide expanse of glacial moraine on Massachusetts's Cape Ann, in 1922 when he spent the summer in nearby Gloucester. Its strange and wild landscape suited his predilection for unconventional landscape motifs (he was dismissive of the picturesque harbor scenes churned out by the hordes of summer colony artists who flocked to Gloucester each summer), and he was determined to return to paint at Dogtown. He did so twice: first in 1931 and again in the summer and fall of 1934. Both occasions were transformative for him psychically and spiritually, and the drama that was played out on the stage at Dogtown is encapsulated in the paintings themselves. Among his most powerful works, the Dogtown paintings and drawings are fraught with the tensions, contrariness, struggle, and eventual triumph that characterize Hartley's personality, energy, and artistic genius.
In both 1931 and 1934 Hartley sought the isolation of Dogtown as an escape from New York City where he felt the pressures of an art world struggling to survive in the midst of the Great Depression. His winter show at Stieglitz's An American Place Gallery, which he claimed was the best he ever had "all nature...so clear and full of fresh vitality" (letter to Rebecca Strand, 1931, Hartley Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University) had sold nothing and he felt himself "the victim of the Stieglitz idea," and he railed against conditions that reduced him to producing easel paintings for the WPA. In 1934 he was also suffering the fatigue of living abroad, having returned earlier that year from five months in Bavaria preceded by a year in Mexico on a Guggenheim Fellowship. In a letter to his niece written just before his return from Germany he acknowledged that he had been away long enough and needed to be on his own soil. "Perhaps," he mused, "it is the American struggle itself that could mean more to me."(letter to Norma Berger, 13 November 1933, Yale Collection of American Literature) Thus, though the pathway was still not clear to him, Hartley's experience at Dogtown Common in the summer and fall of 1934 was a pivotal first step in his return to his native New England.
Autumn Landscape, Dogtown throbs with pent-up energy. Here is no ordinary landscape. Though there is a horizon line with distinct blue sky, the landscape elements--the boulders, vertical juniper trees, and flaming red shrubbery--defy normal perspectival logic. Piled up and tumbled together, there is little differentiation between solid rock, ground plane, or leafy vegetation. In fact, the helter-skelter of painting seems an objective correlative to the geological upheaval that formed the glacial moraine eons ago. Defying also what he interpreted as the commercial pressures on him to return to native themes, he refused to compromise or conform to the popular demand for American scene painting. While still recognizable as landscape motifs, the rocks, trees, and sky of Autumn Landscape, Dogtown are compacted into an all-over composition and barely contained emotional intensity that presage abstract expressionism, bringing to mind works like Jackson Pollock's own ode to autumn sixteen years later, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Typical of his restlessness and despite his desire to escape the New York art scene for the isolation of Dogtown, Hartley had quickly bored of Gloucester only weeks after his arrival in July 1934. But he stayed the course and by fall was taking full advantage of the flaming colors of October that heightened the primordial appearance of the terrain at Dogtown Common. In November he took a drive north to the southern tip of Maine, at Eliot and Kittery where the magnificent Piscataqua River flows into the Atlantic. Writing to Stieglitz in a new frame of mind, we see the deep import of his season at Dogtown, as well as his emerging vision of his return to Maine:
"it came to me again--a river of my own earth and country--deep flowing sure going--unquestioning--nothing like a river to show one just that--the mountain will give you the lesson of sobriety and moral purpose--and aristocratic imperturbability--the rock such as I have here in Dogtown delivers sermons of integrity piety wholesome continuity--and so you see one can go to church anywhere & pray standing up at all times--because simple true desire is profound prayer." (letter to Alfred Stieglitz, 21 November 1934, Yale Collection of American Literature, New Haven, Connecticut)
Hartley had found enough inner stillness to listen to the "sermons of integrity piety wholesome continuity" delivered by the rocks at Dogtown and transmuted into paintings like Autumn Landscape. Neither geography (his perceptual response to a certain locale) nor stylistic idiosyncrasy can account for these Dogtown pictures. Rather, what distinguishes Hartley's Dogtown works from mere landscape is that they arose from his total creative involvement with or felt experience of place, an energetic, integrated commitment of mind and heart occurring at a level of consciousness deeper than sense perception. The lesson of integrity learned from the rocks at Dogtown would guide his final return to his native place and the great achievements of his last decade of painting.
We would like to thank Gail R. Scott for this note.