GLOUCESTER — By the time the painter Marsden Hartley first set eyes on Dogtown in 1920, this elevated parcel of land in the heart of Cape Ann already had a long and unnerving history.
Just over a decade later, he made two series of paintings that are the subject of “Soliloquy in Dogtown,” a tight but captivating exhibition at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester.
Hartley (1877-1943) described Dogtown as “a weird stretch of landscape . . . all boulders and shrubs.” It was, he said, “almost hostile to the common eye” and “like a cross between Easter Island and Stonehenge — essentially druidic in appearance.”
The settlement dates to the mid-17th century. Only sixty to 100 families ever lived there, eking out a subsistence living in difficult circumstances.
The views were good. But the land was not very fertile. And so the population gradually withered away. Those with means moved closer to the harbors of Gloucester and Rockport. Only those with scant choice remained: widows of soldiers in the Revolutionary War, drifters, former slaves.
Dogs they kept close for protection went feral when their owners died or peeled away. The last home was knocked down in 1845. By 1860, John James Babson, the author of the “History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann,” described Dogtown as “remote and sterile.” Still, he said, “the ancient cellars, the grass-grown roads, and the traditions of the place still impart a melancholy interest to the deserted hamlet.”
The “traditions of the place” are still very much alive. Dogtown is a charismatic locale, by turns creepy and seductive, haunted and poetic. You only have to go there to pick up on its peculiar emanations, which attract even as they repel.
Is it haunted? I can’t say. All I can report is that I drove up Dogtown Road, which is just five minutes from the museum, and immediately high-tailed it out of there. (Funny, though: Now I’m eager to go back.)
Woods have taken over much of Dogtown’s 3,000 acres, obscuring its former vistas. It is no longer, I’m told, a dumping ground for unwanted trash or a haven for underage drinking, and to the delight of walkers and nature-lovers, nature is now in the ascendant.
But an atmosphere of forsaken humanity remains. A teacher was murdered there in 1984. Rumors of witchcraft and menace abound.
Hartley fell in love with Dogtown at a time when he was feeling forsaken himself. He was all but made for such a state. Born in Lewiston, Maine, he was an early orphan, and gay at a time when homosexuality was feared, suppressed, ridiculed, persecuted.
His first serious lover, Karl von Freyburg, a German soldier whom he had met in Paris, was killed in the first months of the Great War. Thereafter Hartley spent more than a decade wandering from town to town, from country to country, from continent to continent.
It was six years after von Freyburg’s death that Hartley got his first taste of Dogtown, during a summer spent in Gloucester. He identified with the landscape in a way that renewed him, rather than reinforcing his depression. He made a note to come back.
Despondency returned after a hard winter in New York 10 years later. He was ready, he wrote to one friend, either for “a monastery or a crematorium.” He returned to Dogtown. And this time he got painting.
There are more than a dozen paintings and about the same number of drawings in the Cape Ann Museum show, which repeats, with feeling (and some extra drawings), a similar show mounted by the museum in 1985. Since Hartley was one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century, and since his “Dogtown” pictures so patently express something deep within him, it’s a show you don’t want to miss.
The paintings are absolutely fired with conviction. You believe them the instant you come into their orbit. They have a locked-in, unbreakable quality that has little to do with standard approaches to composition, and everything to do with Hartley’s ability to boil down visual information without reducing it to wispy, abstract fragments. Instead, he reinserts his simplified (but never schematized) rocks, clouds, and shrubs into a pictorial field that remains utterly coherent, perfectly legible, even as the paint itself conveys a farouche energy.
“There is always the quality of wonder in being not quite anywhere at all,” Hartley once wrote to a friend at whose house he had insulted the guests, resulting in his own ejection. He was writing to apologize.
Ejection, rejection, the quality of wonder that goes with being cast out on your own: Hartley evidently found these things in Dogtown, too. The place was marked by centuries of neglect. One found there a total absence of anything to do with the picturesque. Evidence of human abandonment was everywhere. Nature encroached, impeccably indifferent.
For Hartley, it was all bracing stuff.
He was a vivid writer and (at times) convincing poet, as well as a painter. The show’s title comes from his poem “Soliloquy at Dogtown — Cape Ann.” It’s reproduced in the show’s slim catalog, along with essays by curator Martha Oaks, James F. O’Gorman, and Peter Anastas.
Hartley was a deep soul. But he was also, in Robert Hughes’s apt phrase, a “political fleabrain,” tragically susceptible to the aesthetic style and rhetoric of a regime — Hitler’s — that would have murdered him without pausing to blink.
Hartley’s dalliances not just with German militarism in World War I, but, worse, with Nazism in the ’30s, go some way to explaining the American public’s reluctance to acknowledge his genius. There are no doubt other reasons, just as cogent.
But Hartley could paint. There’s no point denying that. No American in the first half of the 20th century — not Arthur Dove, not Georgia O’Keeffe, not John Marin, and not Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, or Stuart Davis — was quite as convincing.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this review misstated the year Hartley died.