Marsden Hartley and Gloucester
September 2005

Marsden Hartley arrived in Gloucester, Massachusetts, from New York, by way of boat from Boston, in mid-July, 1931. The painter and poet had suffered a debilitating case of bronchitis over the past winter and hadn't painted in nearly a year. He was losing his hearing. He felt alienated from American culture and longed for Europe. He wondered if art was worth the trouble.
Gloucester has attracted more than its fair share of artists over the years, but unlike most of them, Hartley wasn't much drawn to the city's gritty waterfront.
"There is little for me to work from," he complained in a letter to his niece in August, "though I go every day to Dogtown."
Hartley was fascinated with Dogtown, an abandoned colonial village now hidden in the woods at the center of Gloucester. He wanted to stake out untraveled territory. He was attracted by its history, its severe look, and its name (which, some say, recalled the feral canines left behind by its last inhabitants). The tired, sad-eyed, hound-dog-faced man pioneered his mature style at Dogtown that summer -- a roughhewn, folksy way of painting that produced pictures distinguished by heavy outlines and bold sculptural shapes.

Gloucester sits near the end of Cape Ann, a fist of granite an hour's drive north of Boston that punches out into the icy North Atlantic. One recent morning, I parked my car in an industrial park in Gloucester's center and hiked into the surrounding magnolias, pines, birches and beeches of Dogtown -- then down a hill, across a black amber stream, through a tangle of bittersweet decked with red berries and gold husks, over railway tracks bridging the end of the city reservoir, and up a rocky hill. A woodpecker investigated one tree trunk and then flew off. Walls of boulders, stacked three and four high, rambled through the trees and over hills, marking the property bounds of English settlers who cleared "Town Parish" or "Upper Town," as it was then known, for planting and pasture in the late 1600s. The thin soil was never well suited for farming and the village dwindled as Gloucester threw its lot in with fishing and clustered around the harbor downtown. They say the last resident of Dogtown was taken to the poor house in the 1830s, but people continued to graze their cattle, sheep, and horses there until Hartley's time. Now it's all gone to seed.

Hartley spent his mornings in Gloucester reading, writing, or at the beach. He might catch a movie downtown in the evening. But in the afternoons, he hiked the five miles to Dogtown. He didn't have the strength to haul his painting materials with him, so he painted from crayon, pencil, or ink sketches, as well as from memory. I imagine the 54-year-old wheezing as he thumped up and down Dogtown's boulder-studded hills, hunting for a spot to sit alone among the scrub and stone and saturate himself in the austere, elemental landscape. He noted the blueberries, junipers, and, here and there, the odd cellar hole, the only remains from colonial houses.
He quickly found his artistic footing, but remained distracted and annoyed by old ladies he ran into at meals in the guesthouse on the eastern side of the harbor where he boarded, and what he described as the tawdry goings-on of the idle and the snobby who had gathered there for the summer.
"Industry seems to be at a standstill -- if there is any outside of cod fishing --  Poor old New England so done in because of its beauty -- so utterly sold out to the tourist," Hartley wrote to his dealer, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, on August 12.

I first glimpsed Gloucester in the tourist bustle of late summer a decade ago, but by November, when I moved into a ramshackle apartment downtown, it was dark and damp and rusty. The restaurants and art galleries slowed down or shuttered. It seemed most had fled or gone into hibernation to escape the bitter cold. The commercial fishing industry, with which the city most identifies itself, was sputtering from decades of decline. Fresh out of art school and looking for work, I volunteered for a few months at the Cape Ann Historical Museum, a sleepy downtown institution whose claim to fame is the largest collection anywhere of work by Gloucester native Fitz Henry Lane. His canvases, mostly local waterfront scenes painted in the two decades before the end of the Civil War, are still and quiet, like frozen memories.
I'd never heard of Lane, but I've since found he was at the head of a long line of major artists who made their way to this city of 30,000 souls.

Gloucester was already a tourist town by the time Winslow Homer first summered here in 1873. Visitors arrived by train, coach, or steam ship and settled into grand hotels or rented houses for the season. Homer installed himself in a room at the end of Main Street and painted sunny scenes of waifs playing around the waterfront, seeing in them hope after the devastation of the Civil War. He returned in 1880, boarding with a lighthouse keeper on an island in the harbor, to paint schooners under fiery sunset skies.
Edward Hopper painted lonely Gloucester streets and alleys in 1911 and again in the 1920s. Ash Can School painter John Sloan summered here in the 1910s, convincing his friend Stuart Davis to follow. Milton Avery came in the 1940s and attracted his friends Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman. T.S. Eliot (who summered here as a child), Rudyard Kipling, Charles Olson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about this place.
Artists were attracted by Gloucester's crisp clear light, rugged natural beauty, and working harbor. Some turned defunct sail lofts into studios. American Impressionists found here a rocky coastline that recalled Monet's French shores, while urban realists appreciated that, despite the tourist influx, it remained a working-class city, a fishing town complete with roughneck bars and prostitutes plying the waterfront. Some fancied they could know Gloucester completely because it was a small island city, the cape peninsula severed from the mainland by the Annisquam River. And this all was conveniently located just a day's trip from New York. After World War II, though, major artists stopped coming here. The growing interstate highway system and air travel opened up the West. And as the art world shifted from realism to abstraction, artists no longer required Gloucester's picturesque scenery. Today, visiting Cape Ann's galleries, I find a thriving art scene -- but one dominated by painters churning out sentimental harbor scenes for the tourist market. Perhaps this was always the way.

Hartley decided to stay in Gloucester for the fall, and his usual crankiness fled him after the tourist crowd departed. By the end of September, he wrote to a friend about his paintings: "I am wanting them to be painted sculpture and not ordinary paintings and I think they mostly are. I feel as if I am casting off a worrisome chrysalis and hope to emerge a clear and more logical and consequent being."
Hartley was up in Dogtown every afternoon until sundown through late October, sketching drawings for new paintings. The leaves turned red and gold, contrasting with the greenish hew of the lichen-speckled boulders. The sun hung lower in the sky, offering a warmer light that accentuated the sculptural masses of trees and stone. His paintings distilled these components down to the essential, uncanny air of the place, which lingers in the memory along with the paths and brambles, hills and boulders of Dogtown.
"And I assure you I have never seen anything so unique as the coloring is up on the Cape just now. It comes the closest to the analogy of music that I have ever seen. ... I am relieved to find nature at last being thoroughly visual again -- and for once she evades all the painters save me, or so I am inclined to think as I never see one up there," Hartley wrote on October 22. "...It cannot appeal to dull painters because it calls for deep contact and study and I am capable of both. And while my pictures are small -- they are more intense than ever before -- and I have for once immersed myself in the mysticism of nature."
Hartley left Gloucester in mid-December to spend the holidays in New York and then continued on to Mexico on a Guggenheim fellowship. His Gloucester work sold poorly in New York the following spring, but he returned here one last time in 1934. He was distracted by financial worries and the looming war in Europe, and couldn't recapture the electricity he'd tapped here three years before.
Hartley wrote on July 20, 1934: "I had lived it over in my imagination so intensely that the thing looked like nothing when I got here."