The summer of 1931 proved to be a watershed for Marsden Hartley's artistic expression. After spending many years traveling abroad, Hartley returned home to his native New England and spent the first of his three visits in Dogtown, Massachusetts, a small area outside of Gloucester. Locale continually played a vital role in Hartley's artistic inspiration and Dogtown provided a unique setting in which the artist could re-discover his native roots.
Hartley first made a brief visit to Dogtown during the summer of 1920. With essentially no inhabitants, Dogtown immediately appealed to the artist's want of solitude and moved him with its unique, primitive landscape, composed of large granite boulders that seemingly stood still in time. From 1920 to 1930, Hartley wandered and painted abroad in Germany and France, returning occasionally to the United States for short visits and exhibitions. Hartley was often criticized, most notably by Henry McBride, the premier art critic of the American modern movement, for his choice of foreign subject and for his decision not turn to his indigenous landscape for inspiration. These critiques, along with relatively poor sales during this period, challenged Hartley to return home to New England, where he had previously vowed never to return due to the emotional turmoil he associated with the area.
1931 was turbulent for Hartley. The year began with a successful show at An American Place, but was then followed by a severe bout with bronchitis that threatened the life of the artist. In the early summer, Hartley sought refuge in the area of Dogtown, recalling the distinct landscape that instilled in him a new need to search out truth and understanding in nature through his painting. During this time, "he was using locale to express broader issues, and the power of form and color to convey his sense of man's place in this world and the need for endurance." (T. Ludington, Marsden Hartley: The Biography of an American Artist, Ithaca, New York, p. 211) It was during this period that Hartley became deeply interested by readings of mysticism and religion and searching out truth in his life. These explorations would ultimately lead to a stronger clarity in his art.
It is also known that Hartley was profoundly inspired by T.S. Eliot's recently published Ash Wednesday, from which he cited the following lines on the reverse of another painting from the Dogtown series:
"Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
[Even] among these rocks"
These poetic lines served to help Hartley come to terms with his experiences in New England and lend a clearer perspective on his life in the context of nature. In the Fall of 1931, Hartley told Rebecca Strand that "I have laid new principles of life for myself and have given up old forms and concepts." He was hoping that these new paintings from Dogtown would be "painted sculpture and no ordinary painting." Hartley went on to say that "I feel as if I am casting off a wearisome chrysalis and hope to emerge a clearer and more logical and consequent being." (as quoted in Marsden Hartley: The Biography of an American Artist, p. 210)
In The Embittered Afternoon of November, Dogtown, Hartley responds to his natural surroundings by portraying an enduring terrain composed of unforgiving forms. He depicts the boulders, trees and ground with expressive strokes of paint, revealing the sculptural and tactile surfaces of his environment. These bold dashes of pigment complement the underlying structure and order of space that pervades the scene. Hartley would often spend hours sketching among the rocks and would then return to his studio to complete the fully realized oil compositions, with the overwhelming presence of nature still hauntingly fresh in his mind.
Hartley described this area of Dogtown as "a place so original in its appearance as not to be duplicated either in New England or anywhere else--the rocks all heaped up there from the glacial period, and the air of being made for no one, for nothing but itself...A sense of eeriness pervades all the place therefore and the white shirts of those huge boulders, mostly granite, stand like sentinels guarding nothing but shore--sea gulls fly over it on their way to the marshes to the sea--otherwise the place is forsaken and majestically lovely as if nature had at last found one spot where she can live for herself alone. It takes someone to be obsessed by nature for its own sake--one with a feeling for austerities and the intellectual aloofness which lost lonesome areas can persist in." (as quoted in Somehow a Past: The Autobiography of Marsden Hartley, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997, p. 144)
Hartley would return to Dogtown again in 1934 and 1936. It was this first visit, however, that provided the artist with an intellectual awakening that would have a profound affect on his future canvases. The summer and fall months of 1931 emotionally and artistically challenged Hartley and resulted in the most striking landscapes from this period.