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Seven Weeks of Summer

The Cape Ann Museum’s Edward Hopper show opens this month, but he wasn’t the only famous artist who painted here

Edward Hopper, “Gloucester Beach, Bass Rocks,” 1923-24.© 2023 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

GLOUCESTER — “Edward Hopper & Cape Ann: Illuminating an American Landscape” is the summer’s big show up here; the Cape Ann Museum will open the exhibition next week, produced in partnership with New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, on Hopper’s brief time spent perched on this rocky outcrop of Atlantic coastline.

“Edward Hopper’s New York,” the Whitney’s showcase last fall of Hopper’s calculated, chilly visions of his hometown every which way — its bridges and tunnels, high-rises and tenements, apartments and lunch counters — set a standard for dispassionate observation of urban life as the city transformed into a modern megalopolis at midcentury. When he traveled, it was neither far nor wide; but Gloucester was an early candidate for him and his wife, the painter Jo Nivison Hopper, to call home away from home. Lured north from the city by Leon Kroll, an important peer, Hopper and Nivision hemmed and hawed and eventually settled on Cape Cod, where they spent summers painting for more than 30 years.

With or without them, Gloucester’s role in American art history is legendary; Hopper and Nivison traveled a well-worn path to Cape Ann, where a near superhighway of American Modernism had been established between Manhattan and Gloucester’s craggy shores. But the town’s role in American art history was seeded centuries before, making it fertile ground for a pair of young painters to seek inspiration and community. In brief, here’s a look at some of the town’s most notable creatives, and what drew them north.

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Fitz Henry Lane, "Gloucester Harbor from Rocky Neck," 1844. Gift of Jane Parker Stacy in memory of George O. Stacy, 1948.Cape Ann Museum

Fitz Henry Lane

Gloucester’s art history is far from recent, and it’s not so much of a stretch to suggest that Lane’s paintings — of harbors and shorelines and tall ships and, more than anything, the soft brilliance of that Cape Ann light filtered through the fine sea mist — provided a lure that bewitched generations of artists after him. Lane was Gloucester through and through: Born in 1804, the son of a sailmaker, he grew up to capture countless images of the bustling harbor, which, in his time, was among the country’s busiest. The array of his paintings on view at the Cape Ann Museum, so many of them all but emanating an otherworldly glow, make abundantly clear why he was a charter member of an American art cohort called the Luminists.

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"Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)," 1873-76, by Winslow Homer.National Gallery of Art

Winslow Homer

As a gifted young illustrator, Homer was frequently dispatched to the frontlines of the Civil War in his early career, embedded with the Union Army to chronicle its efforts there. After the war, with the ache of a nation torn in two still an open wound, Homer took a giant leap from illustration into large-scale oil paintings, both of bucolic, nostalgic scenes of natural splendor in the North, and of the doomed agenda of Reconstruction in the South. Strung out, I think, by the chasm that remained between the two sides, Homer, a Bostonian, retreated to Gloucester in 1873, where he discovered a tone that would become a hallmark of his career. He stayed through most of the decade, and even his sunny beachside scenes here are tinged with threat and emptiness, a feeling he would carry with him until his death, farther north in Maine, in 1910. Gloucester was where he found a certain freedom, if you can call it that; it’s also where he first experimented with watercolors, of which he is the master in American art. This piece, painted during his time on Cape Ann, is a quintessential image of the breadth of pleasure and danger he found on the edge of those cold northern waters; the dark waves and gathering clouds to me embody the wariness that permeated so many of Homer’s best works.

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“Rock Doxology,” 1931, oil on board by Marsden Hartley. Collection of the Cape Ann Museum/Gift of Robert L. and Elizabeth French, 2009.Marsden Hartley (Collection of the Cape Ann Museum/Gift of Robert L. and Elizabeth French, 2009)

Marsden Hartley

“Dogtown is mine,” Hartley once wrote of this long-abandoned, enduringly eerie remnant of a farming village scratched out of unforgiving forest and rock on the northern fringes of Gloucester. A charter member of the 291 Gallery, New York’s avant-garde ground zero of American Modernism — run by Alfred Stieglitz, and now most famous as the first exhibition venue of his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe — Hartley was one of many drawn to Gloucester’s burgeoning art scene. On his first visit, in the 1920s, the fishing shacks of Rocky Neck were already being refitted as artist studios; by 1931, when he returned to paint Dogtown, the place was overrun. While others were drawn to the glittering waters and ramshackle fishing wharves in town, Hartley felt a pull to Dogtown, where the remains of the village’s stone cellars still lurked under foot, and where massive boulders lay strewn over the steep hillsides like marbles dropped from a giant’s hand. He even wrote poetry about it; in autumn, the scrubby undergrowth that found root in the rocky fields would turn from green to bright orange, coming “the closest to music that I have ever seen,” Hartley wrote. As weird as Dogtown was when he first started painting it, it soon grew weirder still. At the height of the Depression in 1933, a local industrialist named Roger Babson, who had donated 1,000 acres to the town for a reservoir, had an idea: He wanted Dogtown to become a place of inspiration, not menace, and hired a local stonecarver to inscribe the boulders with what he imagined would be uplifting exhortations, but achieved the opposite: Amid the spindly forest that’s taken root amid the rocks, giant stones inscribed with phrases like USE YOUR HEAD, STAY OUT OF DEBT, TRUTH, and INDUSTRY appear at intervals in the woods. Now a conservation area, there are hiking trails through Dogtown, so you can see for yourself. If you dare.

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Stuart Davis, "Swing Landscape," 1938. Allocated by the US government; commissioned through the New Deal Art Projects.Kevin Montague/Courtesy Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University

Stuart Davis

It’s still hard for me to believe that Davis, whose bright, jaunty pictures often feel like music — jazz was his thing — somehow flash-frozen in paint, was ever a student of John Sloan, among the formative members of the Ashcan School who favored dun and downtrodden scenes of urban life. But it was Sloan who first brought Davis to Gloucester, in 1915, breaking New York’s hold on the young artist and opening a window through which Davis would see the world anew. He called it, simply, “the place I had been looking for.” Sloan didn’t stick around long — just a few summers, as the two tried on the startling new European styles they had seen at the New York Armory Show of 1913, where artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse first touched American soil. But Davis would keep coming back for decades, spending every summer until at least 1934 and defining a distinctly buoyant American version of Cubism helped by the ebullient chaos of its light, colors, and workaday rhythms. In 1938, he completed his Gloucester magnum opus: “Swing Landscape,” a 14-foot-long paean to the unruly pleasure of observing Gloucester Harbor from a perch on Rocky Neck. A masterpiece of American Modernism, it would never have been, without Gloucester.

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Mark Rothko, "Wharf, Gloucester, Massachusetts," 1934.National Gallery of Art

Mark Rothko

Milton Avery belongs on this list of important Gloucester artists in his own right, but he’ll get his due when the Cape Ann Museum opens an exhibition devoted to the Gloucester-based collaborations of Avery, Adolph Gottlieb, and Rothko in 2025. But for now, I’ll focus on the much more famous Rothko, whom he dragged to Gloucester in the first place (an Avery renaissance is underway, but Abstract Expressionist superstar recognition may never come). Avery befriended the much younger Rothko when both were enrolled in classes at the Art Students League of New York in 1925. Avery was then 40, and had been painting for almost 20 years; he became a source of advice for his young classmates, who included Barnett Newman, and managed to convince Rothko and his wife, Edith Sachar, to spend the summer with him and his wife, the painter Sally Michel, in Gloucester in 1934. Rothko was not yet Rothko, to be sure; but isn’t there something in the amorphous rooflines of the fishing shacks, the soft haze of sky and water dissolving into one another, inchoate, that signals the hazy fogs of color yet to come?



Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.