Gloucester's wild expanse on the interior of the island of Cape Ann is credited with giving a spiritual rebirth to one of America's great 20th century artists, Marsden Hartley (1877-1943).
While Hartley came here at a low point in his career, he left with a bounty of drawings to spur on his career.
The result of those visits led to the creation of his Dogtown series, as well as a number of poems he wrote including "Soliloquy in Dogtown," also the name of the new exhibit which opens Saturday at the Cape Ann Museum.
Like so many great artists, Hartley's story is filled with inner struggle and despair, and he died having earned moderate financial gain, though posthumously his paintings sell well into the millions. His 1915 oil painting titled "Lighthouse" set a record when it sold for $6.31 million at Christie's in New York in 2008.
This Cape Ann Museum exhibition includes oil paintings and ink drawings from the Cape Ann Museum's own holdings as well as from museum collections across the country, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
Hartley, the first generation of American Modernist painters, first came to Gloucester in 1920, when he stayed at a boarding house at One Eastern Point Road. Distancing himself from the many artists who would flock here to paint in the summers, Hartley instead turned away from the seashore and wandered into Dogtown, which once was home to a colonial settlement that became abandoned after the Civil War. He returned to Gloucester again in 1931 and in 1934.
His experience in Dogtown inspired both artwork and prose. He was inspired by the writing of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and found solace embraced by the wonders of the natural world.
Hartley described Dogtown when he wrote: "... a sense of eeriness pervades all the place; the white ghosts of those huge boulders stand like sentinels guarding nothing but space." In a letter he wrote to his niece, he called the place "majestically lovely" and "a cross between Easter Island and Stonehenge — essentially druidic in its appearance."
Dogtown, an area of 3,000 acres in the interior of Cape Ann, has both a primitive boulder-strewn landscape as well as a history steeped in lore that includes pirates, slavery, witchcraft as well as murder. In contrast to the bustling harbor and beaches, Hartley would find peace and tranquility in the meadows and forest.
This Hartley exhibition is not the first for Cape Ann Museum. In 1985, the museum staged an exhibition to critical acclaim, even garnering a review from the New York Times.
Martha Oaks, who curated the 1985 show, said there is now a greater appreciation of Hartley's work since that show.
That was confirmed in 2009 when Bob French bequeated the museum two of Hartley's Dogtown paintings.
"People kept coming in to see them. They were just waiting to get another look at the Hartley paintings," said Oaks. "Also I think interest in Dogtown itself has stayed so strong."
The museum pulled together paintings that come from all corners of the United States. It is believed that there were about 18 to 22 paintings in his Dogtown series.
"People don't get to see these paintings all together. This exhibition has 12 drawings and 12 paintings that literally come from across the country, allowing them to see this body of work in one place," said Oaks. "Even in 1985, the museum knew enough about the artist to know he was 'the' painter and poet of Dogtown and if you wanted a quality exhibit about Dogtown, you needed him in it."
Peter Anastas, a local historican and author, who along with Oaks, was part of community group seeking to preserve the wild interior of the island, which led to the launching of that seminal museum exhibit. This group had come together, in part, after concern erupted in the wake of a 1984 murder in Dogtown.
"The show was part of that whole movement to preserve and celebrate Dogtown. Many didn't realize that it was the first show of the Dogtown paintings," he said. "The 1985 exhibit here was a ground-breaking show. Hartley has since catapulted into this fame and posthumous reputation. He was always known but never had the recognition he has now. He was a painter's painter. He was an art historian's painter and known to people inside the profession but he hadn't received the popular recognition that Georgia O'Keefe got."
He and O'Keefe were contemporaries and both showed at the Alfred Stieglitz gallery in New York City.
Anastas explained that Hartley was an experimental painter living in Europe around the time of World War I when painting in America was moving in a different direction, focusing on regionalization and localism.
"People felt his reputation was waning because he spent so much time in Europe, but in the 1930s he was beginning to paint American scenes again, eventually returning to his birthplace in Maine. But it was Dogtown that brought him back to life and through which he started to paint the American experience and his native ground," he said. "He was a quirky painter and he was a quirky individual, He was the closeted gay man. The poetry came out of that inner person."
Anastas said published work featuring prose by the painter himself and other books about the painter have contributed to Hartley's growing popularity in the wake of the 1985 show, which has spilled over into the 21st century.
"His poetry was collected and published, and people had not seen his poetry in a major collection," he said.
His autobiography "Somehow a Past: The Autobiography of Marsden Hartley" was published published by the MIT press in 1997. In 1998, scholar Townsend Ludington published "Marsden Hartley, the Biography of an American Artist." And his essays and poetry were collected in a volume and published by Black Sparrow in California.
"The crazy thing is this, he was living and painting in a chicken coup in Corea, Maine, in the summers," continued Anastas, who also wrote a piece for the exhibition catalog. "He was frightened about surviving and his paintings weren't selling and his reputation was at a low ebb."
Born in Lewiston, Maine, Hartley died in a town not far away at the age of 66.
This Cape Ann Museum exhibition includes an array of lectures and events, including Dogtown walking tours, book discussions and children's programs. The museum published a color catalog with essays by Martha Oaks, James F. O'Gorman and Peter Anastas to accompany the exhibition.
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Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Hartley in Dogtown Lecture Series features authors and scholars.
The schedule is as follows:
June 28 — Townsend Ludington, Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina, author of "Marsden Hartley, the Biography of an American Artist";
July 28 — Anita Diamant, best-selling author of "The Last Days of Dogtown";
Aug. 18 —- Elyssa East, author of "Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town";
Sept. 22 — Gail Levin, art historian and author of "Hartley's Catalogue Raisonné©."
If you go ...
What: "Marsden Hartley: Soliloquy in Dogtown," an art exhibition
When: June 9 - October 14
Where: Cape Ann Museum, 27 Pleasant St. in Gloucester.
This special exhibition of paintings and drawings of Dogtown Common by American modernist Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) includes oil paintings and ink drawings from the Cape Ann Museum's holdings as well as from museum collections across the country. Admission is $10 adults, $8 Cape Ann residents, students and seniors. Children under 12 and members are free. A complete listing of exhibition related programs and events can be found online at www.capeannmuseum.org.