In 1923, Edward Hopper escaped the summer heat of New York City to take up temporary residence in a Gloucester boarding house.
During his stay the artist — who turned 41 that summer — created a series of watercolor paintings of old houses and street scenes across the maritime city. The visit proved pivotal for Hopper (1882-1967), whose watercolors from that summer earned him his first real fame and set him on a path to becoming one of the foremost American painters of the 20th century.
To mark the centennial of that summer, the Cape Ann Museum is preparing a major exhibition devoted to the role Hopper’s 1923 Gloucester visit — and the four subsequent summers he spent in the city — played in his legendary career.
Set to open on July 22 — Hopper’s birthday — and run through Oct. 16, “Edward Hopper & Cape Ann: Illuminating an American Landscape” is being presented in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the major repository of Hopper’s work.
“It’s remarkable to think the paintings that actually launched Hopper’s career came in 1923 and were painted in Gloucester — and they are coming here to our show,” said Oliver Barker, the museum’s director. “We are really delighted to be able to mark that anniversary.”
He said the exhibition — the first devoted to Hopper’s Cape Ann summers — also will highlight the key role Hopper’s fellow artist and future wife, Josephine “Jo” Nivison, played in launching his career. Nivison, with whom Hopper spent four of those five Gloucester summers, encouraged him in his work and was instrumental in enabling him to exhibit six of his paintings in 1923.
“She helped him see his way forward and find his own voice,” said Elliot Bostwick Davis, guest curator for the exhibit.
The exhibition, accompanied by a 225-page catalog, will include 65 paintings, drawings, and prints, 57 of them by Hopper, seven by Nivison, and one by Robert Henri, an influential New York artist who taught them both.
The Whitney, which is currently holding its own “Edward Hopper’s New York,” exhibition, is providing 28 of the art pieces for the Cape Ann show; 27 other institutions also are loaning works. Cape Ann Museum’s lone Hopper piece — a drawing of a Gloucester cemetery — is included.
Hopper’s paintings from his five Cape Ann summers comprise much of the exhibition, but visitors will also see some of his works from other periods, including oil paintings from an earlier 1912 Gloucester visit, and childhood drawings.
Highlights of the exhibited Hopper works include “Briar Neck” (1912); “House in Italian Quarter” (1923); the “Mansard Roof” (1923); “Trawler” (1923-24); “Gloucester” (1928); “Cape Ann Granite” (1928); “Hodgkin’s House” (1928); and “Sun on Prospect Street.” (1934).
As Gloucester celebrates its 400th anniversary this year, Barker said the exhibition will highlight the rich artistic tradition that is part of the Cape Ann story. Other prominent painters who worked on Cape Ann include Gloucester native Fitz Henry Lane and Winslow Homer.
“The exhibition fits our ongoing commitment to celebrate the art history and culture of Cape Ann and the role it has played and continues to play in changing American art and history,” said Barker, who hopes contemporary local artists will be inspired.
“I’m very excited about it,” Gloucester painter Jeff Weaver said. “Artists learn a lot from the work of other artists, especially someone as outstanding as Edward Hopper. He was a master of his art.
“Familiarity with art is part of our DNA in Cape Ann,” Weaver said, “and given that Hopper depicted so many well-known areas in the city, I expect the show will be extremely popular with the public at large. People know who Hopper is, they love his work, they love the fact he painted the local houses. So it’s going to be exciting to people.”
To engage the community, the museum is partnering with Gloucester schools for a spring display that will allow eighth-grade students to create paintings reflecting their own present-day views of Gloucester. It also plans spring walking tours of local sites Hopper painted, and a fall lecture series and daylong symposium tied to the exhibit.
At the time he came to Gloucester in 1923, Hopper was supporting himself as a magazine illustrator and etcher, and had sold only one painting. Despite painting in Gloucester in 1912 and for six subsequent summers in Maine, Davis said, “He really had not managed to break through as a painter, which was his hope and dream.
“He had to find a way for his style to reflect his own emotions,” she said, “and because of Gloucester he did, with the help of Jo.”
Hopper was drawn to Cape Ann by the striking natural light that had dazzled other artists, Davis said. Soon after arriving, he encountered Nivison, an established New York painter he knew. The two began early-morning excursions to paint outdoor sites, with Hopper following her advice to use watercolors due to the ease of transporting them from place to place.
Through Nivison’s advocacy, the Brooklyn Museum put on a major American watercolor exhibition in the fall of 1923 that included six Hopper watercolors alongside her own paintings. The museum purchased one of them — “The Mansard Roof” — setting Hopper’s career in motion.
Hopper and Nivision spent another summer in Gloucester in 1924, this time as a married couple. The two had wed July 9 after Nivison, who originally had other summer plans, agreed to Hopper’s request to return with him to Gloucester on the condition they marry that same day.
Davis said his Cape Ann paintings show Hopper’s taste for using “stunning landscape and light” to bring beauty to such commonplace structures as weathered homes and rusty beamed trawlers.
Speaking to Time magazine in 1956, Hopper said, “At Gloucester, when everyone else would be painting ships and the waterfront, I’d just go around looking at houses.”
Davis said she hopes the Cape Ann Museum exhibition illuminates “how much he transformed his work on Cape Ann. You see sides of Hopper you don’t see always in an urban setting.”
Barker said looking at the paintings today, “They have a freshness, a directness, that visually I find very exciting. It’s thrilling to be able to show these and share them with the public in the place they were created.”
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.