The Legacy of Marsden Hartley’s Dogtown Landscapes: An Unpopular Spot for Inspiration in Cape Ann

3 min read

Jules Bourbeau ’25

A&E Editor

Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts has long been a popular spot for artistic inspiration, whether it be Gloucester’s Rocky Neck Artist Colony or Rockport’s famous Motif Number One. Winslow Homer, Milton Avery, and Edward Hopper were just some of the many famous artists that put the coastal scenes of “the other cape” to canvas. For the American Modernist painter Marsden Hartley, however, he gravitated instead towards an inland, abandoned, and unpopular settlement called Dogtown. Although he spent plenty of time in New York, the Midwest, and Europe, Hartley was thoroughly a New Englander, hailing from Maine and eventually returning to spend the majority of his final decades there. During this time, he ventured down from Maine to visit Dogtown on four separate occasions, documenting the experiences with paintings each time.

While famous to locals and ghost town enthusiasts, Dogtown remains just about as obscure today as it was in the early 20th century when Hartley traveled there. Settlement by Europeans began in 1693, 70 years after European occupation in neighboring Gloucester. From the beginning, it was an agricultural town that never grew past 100 or so families. It was its industry of choice that would be its undoing: You can’t survive long in that area if you’re not willing to go to sea. By 1830, not one person was left. All that remains are a few ruins and the massive granite boulders that are characteristic of the region, making it look more like a paleolithic archaeological site than an early New England colonial settlement. 

Depending on the season of his visit, Hartley fills in the bottom half of his Dogtown paintings with emerald, blue-green grass or bright red autumn foliage. What remains consistent are the foreboding chunks of granite, outlined in thick, black strokes that separate them from the rounded plant life and sloping ground. The only sign of human existence comes in the form of stone walls, dirt paths, or dilapidated fenceposts, now keeping out no one and leading to nowhere. Even the few bits of rope spotted in some of the paintings feel out of place in this natural expanse, the most basic of technology having been rendered too modern for such an ancient place.

It was this primeval quality that attracted Hartley. In fact, one must be careful when discussing his work in light of his contribution to narratives of Indigenous disappearance. He wrote of Dogtown saying, “it gives the feeling that an ancient race might turn up at any moment and renew an ageless rite there.” In reality, the Pawtucket and Agawam people that would have lived in the area prior to European interference have descendants that are alive to this day; they are far from “ancient.” Dogtown is unique in that saying that no Indigenous people live there today is accurate, but only in the sense that no one lives there today. One need not abandon Hartley’s Dogtown landscapes, but do question their implicit claims about placemaking in New England and the imperialist nostalgia of a false untouched, precolonial America. Let the land speak for itself.

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