Summer with Marsden Hartley
By Beth Hamilton
Marsden Hartley was one of the earliest and most progressive American artists to embrace modernism. Born as Edmund Hartley in Lewiston, Maine, he eventually joined his family in Cleveland and adopted his stepmother’s surname as his first name. In 1898, Hartley received a scholarship to attend the Cleveland School of Art where he showed great talent as an artist. He was awarded funding for further study at the Chase School and the National Academy of Design in New York, an experience that would set his career into motion.
Hartley first painted naturalistic landscapes of the rocky and mountainous region of Maine using a post-Impressionist style reminiscent of Cézanne. His works attracted the attention of influential photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, whose famous 291 Gallery launched the careers of many American modernists, such as Arthur Dove, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, and Charles Demuth. Stieglitz gave Hartley two solo exhibitions at his gallery, and provided support for his first trip to Paris. Over the course of three years, he traveled throughout the European continent, joining other expatriate artists and meeting European modernists through Gertrude Stein.
In 1913, Hartley went to Berlin for two years where he became fascinated with German art and culture. He met Expressionist artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and exhibited with Der Blaue Reiter, a pioneering group that advocated for abstraction rooted in spirituality. He became intrigued by the pageantry of the German military with its vibrant motifs and symbols. Using this inspiration, Hartley completed his iconic German Officer series that combined the geometric shapes and intersecting planes of Cubism with the vibrant and chromatic style of German Expressionism.
Hartley returned to the United States during the war and traveled throughout the West. However, he was eager to return to Europe and spent the late 1920s painting still life compositions and landscapes of the Aix-en-Provence region in the South of France. When Hartley left Europe for the last time, he returned to his home state of Maine. He hoped to reignite his career as a painter of New England landscapes when American regionalist paintings were in great demand.
Hartley first discovered Dogtown in 1920, an abandoned inland town on Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Dogtown was one of the earliest settlements on Cape Ann and in the United States. Settled as a farming community in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the inhabitants abandoned the land for more lucrative means promised in the thriving fishing and trading industries in the nearby port of Gloucester. The nearly 3,000 acres sat empty, aside from its monumental rock formations deposited by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago, and scattered remnants of man-made stone walls.
In the summer of 1931, Hartley returned to Dogtown to paint its vacant, and at times haunting, scenery. The land conjures notions of mysticism, a theme Hartley espoused in his paintings and poetry. Indeed, Hartley poetically described his time in Maine and Dogtown in particular with a sense of awe, and spiritual wonder. He even remarked on the similarity of the landscape with the primeval structures of Easter Island and Stonehenge, sites that continue to astound modern visitors.
In his autobiographical manuscript, Hartley said the following about Dogtown:
A sense of eeriness pervades all the place…and the white shists of those huge boulders mostly granite – stand like sentinels guarding nothing but shore – sea gulls fly over it on their way from the marshes to the sea – Otherwise the place is forsaken and majestically lovely as if nature had at last formed one spot where she can live for herself alone. (Marsden Hartley, “Somehow A Past,” unpublished autobiographical manuscript, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, p. 113.)
Summer en Route, Moraine – Dogtown, 1931 depicts a winding dirt path that intersects the wild landscape of Dogtown, set beneath a crystal blue summer sky. Moraine is a geological term that describes the deposited rock and sediment left behind from glaciers. Hartley painted the massive forms as dense, voluminous sculpture dotting the landscape. Using heavy, expressionistic brushstrokes, Hartley rendered the loneliness and isolation of the barren settlement. The scenery of this work relates to the paintings In the Moraine, Dogtown Common, Cape Ann, 1931 (Figure 1), and Summer Outward Bound, Gloucester, 1931 (Figure 2).
Summer en Route, Moraine – Dogtown, 1931 was first owned by Adelaide Kuntz, the wife of American modern artist Charles Philip Kuntz. Hartley and the Kuntz family were close friends and neighbors in the Aix-en-Provence region of France. Following Charles’ untimely death in 1928, Adelaide became a devoted patron of Hartley and the two sustained a correspondence for many years. Hartley’s experiences in Dogtown and in Maine were documented in many letters to Adelaide. In Dogtown, Hartley found a closeness to nature and was reenergized in his quest to paint modern scenes in his own unique style. He spent the remainder of his career capturing the varied American landscape.
Cover image: Marsden Hartley, American, 1877-1943. Summer en Route, Moraine – Dogtown, 1931. Oil on board. 20 x 18 inches. Signed, titled, dated and inscribed on the verso.