GLOUCESTER — Over the five consecutive summers he spent in Gloucester — five summers that overlapped exactly with World War I — John Sloan painted 292 works. That number accounts for almost a quarter of his life’s production, which tells a story in itself. In the good town of Gloucester, Sloan felt creatively unshackled.
As a noose drew tighter around Europe’s neck, Sloan (1871-1951) and his painter pals were enjoying all-night clambakes and croquet parties on the lawn at the back of the Red Cottage, a house he rented on East Main Street and which still stands. He was also painting like a man possessed.
At first glance, many of the results, 39 of which hang in “John Sloan Gloucester Days” at the recently renovated Cape Ann Museum, look only faintly superior to the plein-air productions of an able Sunday painter. But behind their casual appearance and insouciant, summery spirit, you can detect a gifted painter growing in audacity.
Sloan, a central figure in a loose conglomeration of American urban realists known as the Ashcan School, worked as an artist-correspondent for two Philadelphia newspapers before moving to New York in 1904. His best impulses were journalistic, and he had an instinctive sympathy for the dispossessed and downtrodden.
His mentor, the charismatic Robert Henri, had exposed him to brisk strains of European realism: Diego Velazquez, Frans Hals, Francisco Goya, and Edouard Manet. Along with several fellow veterans of Philadelphia journalism, he took to painting the slums, bars, and rooftops of Philadelphia and New York.
With a cartoonist’s brio, a pre-cinematic feeling for chiaroscuro, and a visible relish for the glistening slipperiness of oil paint, he trained his eye on streetscapes and circus entertainments, washing lines and rooftops, barflies, alcoholics, and prostitutes.
He and his wife, Dolly, an ex-prostitute who struggled for a long time with alcoholism, both championed socialist ideals (Sloan joined the Socialist Party in 1910). They were also pacifists, opposed to America’s entry into the war.
But Sloan detested propaganda. Gloucester presented him with a chance to escape densely populated, politically agitated New York and paint subjects that no one could interpret as calls to political action.
In the summer, Gloucester writhed with easel-carrying artists. From season to season, Sloan and Dolly shared the Red Cottage with other artists and their families — including a young Stuart Davis. Sloan and Davis had both participated in the Armory show, which brought modernism to America in 1913.
Sloan was rattled. The Armory show’s heady strains of European Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism had made Ashcan realism — and much else besides — suddenly look dated.
Sloan, whose sales at this point could be counted on one hand, was most affected by the landscapes of van Gogh. The Dutchman’s thick accretions of piled-on paint, his penchant for bright but still natural harmonies, along with his dash and brio and painterly attack all stirred Sloan’s sensibility. He painted the Red Cottage as if it were a sacred site — the plainspoken American equivalent of the Yellow House shared by van Gogh and Gauguin, in Arles (perhaps closer to William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”?). A stand of sunflowers in a harborside park comes across as a forthright homage to the Dutchman.
But Sloan was still, essentially, a realist. In the best American 20th-century tradition, he took his cues from what was in front of him. Most of the scenes he selected were within walking distance of the Red Cottage. But such is the variety of Gloucester’s topography — sloping streets, kaleidoscopic inlets and rocky bays, offshore islands, marshes, moors, and of course Dogtown, the “weird stretch of landscape” Marsden Hartley painted so powerfully between the wars — that Sloan didn’t have to fear repeating himself.
“Dogtown Common,” with the starkly shadowed, simplified shapes of its scattered rocks and isolated rain clouds, is a clear standout. The edge-to-edge curve of the foreground hill and the calculated cropping of both a big rock at bottom left and a dark cloud at top right conspire to give the composition a swollen, expansive feel. Taut as it is, the brushwork remains attractively louche; it feels like the sort of thing Hartley might have painted after a few beers.
Sloan had a feeling for people. Politically speaking, that was his problem: He couldn’t let the sweeping seductions of leftist political rhetoric displace his curiosity about actual individuals in specific circumstances. But people always imply stories, and since anecdote was what Sloan wanted to avoid at this point, only a few of his Gloucester paintings feature humans.
Those few are focused on Main Street, which was bustling in summer. There is, too, a zesty image called “Passing Through Gloucester,” showing a raffish sextet wearing sunglasses, berets, and boas in an open-top car, which zooms along the painting’s bottom edge before a backdrop of houses, marsh, and muddled sky.
For the most part, however, Sloan painted humorless rocks, water, marshes, hills, and buildings. He was trying out bold new color harmonies. Note, for instance, the ultramarine blue of the rocks in “Evening, Dogtown,” and the combination of purple rocks and green sea in a 1916 painting of waves breaking over rocks.
Purple and green — the same palette Matisse worked with at the turn of the 20th century — pervade the whole show. Sloan’s touch is heavier and his purple is generally darker, so the effects are different, and can lack levity.
When he brightens up, as in the marvelous “Cove, Rocky Neck,” from 1914, so does your estimation of this robustly instinctive painter. The blond sand, the white cliffs of the promontory behind, the blue of the water, and the off-white sky all make the perfect foil for a turquoise boat drawn up on the beach.
Anyone who knows Gloucester and Cape Ann will enjoy the chance to guess at the views Sloan painted and to spot well-known landmarks, many still standing. It’s that kind of show. You can pick your pleasure.
Sloan himself felt no need to return to Gloucester after 1918. The place was overrun with artists, he had come to feel.
It may be that the war, too, had doused his enthusiasm. After the United States’ entry into the conflict, notes Chester Brigham in the show’s catalog, close to 2,000 Gloucester men went off to serve. German submarines had sunk several schooners in the harbor. Rumors of treachery and sabotage skittered through the town like vermin.
Meanwhile, 17 million people had been killed. It was too late for warmongers to start listening to pacifists, and way too late for the pacifists to be saying “I told you so.” It would be a while before anyone could return to clambakes and croquet on Cape Ann with any conviction.
JOHN SLOAN GLOUCESTER DAYS
At: Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester.
Through Nov. 29.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.