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The enduring vision of Gloucester’s Rocky Neck art colony

Ten Pound Island has been a popular subject for Gloucester painters since the mid-1800s.
Ten Pound Island has been a popular subject for Gloucester painters since the mid-1800s.david lyon for the boston globe

GLOUCESTER — Painter Fitz Henry Lane was born to the light. Growing up in a house on Gloucester harbor, he claimed that radiance as his birthright. His magical, light-filled canvases set this first of America’s fishing ports on the path to becoming one of the earliest and most enduring art colonies.

Lane’s paintings of glowing sky and restless sea captured the imagination of Winslow Homer and his colleagues, who flocked to Cape Ann in the 1860s and 1870s. Their sun-splashed depictions of the fishing port and the quintessential New England landscape inspired such leading lights of American Impressionism as Childe Hassam and John Twachtman to paint Cape Ann as well. By the early 20th century, artists practically overran the small houses on the granite promontory of Rocky Neck in Gloucester, forming the nucleus of what would become the Rocky Neck Art Colony and helping to found the North Shore Arts Association. Many of America’s leading realist and early modernist painters, from Edward Hopper to Marsden Hartley, came here to bask in the light. Artists have never stopped coming.

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“When you’re on a peninsula, you have three sides of reflected bright white light,” explains painter Elynn Kroger, who has lived and painted on Rocky Neck for 15 years. “At sunrise and sunset, the water is iridescent. I get up at 4 a.m. to watch the sunrise. I don’t paint what I see, but I’m affected by what I see.”

An artistic timelessness pervades Rocky Neck, where artists still live and work — some all year, others for the summers. The Rocky Neck Historic Art Trail traces a dozen sites associated with the artistic foment from the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries. The downloadable walking tour traipses the length and breadth of the stony neck, prowling along wharves and peeping down rights of way to beaches and pocket coves. The tour is more than a stroll through the past. At every turn there is another studio, another gallery, or an artist painting in the open air. What emerges is a feel for what Kroger calls the “camaraderie, or even violent discord, of a colony where artists live and work in close proximity to each other.”

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Near the beginning of the trail, a former fisherman’s home known as the “Red Cottage” became the focal point of the colony from 1914-1918 when John Sloan and his wife spent the summers here with a changing cast of artist friends. By 1919, the Sloans decamped to New Mexico to get a little peace.

Along Rocky Neck Avenue, sites come up quickly. Marsden Hartley’s studio, now a private home, sits on a picturesque cove overlooking Gloucester’s inner harbor. During the summers he spent here in the 1930s, he painted landscapes of the glacial moraine of Dogtown that depicted land rising into the sky in a style that foreshadowed the pure abstraction of artists who followed. Just up the avenue past the free municipal parking lot is the former studio of A.W. Buhler — an earlier painter whose gritty realism extolled the romance of the sea. He is perhaps best remembered for his 1901 portrait, “Man at the Wheel” — the image adopted by Gorton’s Seafood and the model for the “Gloucester Fisherman” statue on Stacy Boulevard. The space is now occupied by a gallery of jewelry, crafts, and folk art.

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Some historic studios remain active. Emile Gruppé purchased a former school house around 1930 and made it into his studio, gallery, and school where he instructed more than 7,000 students. His son Robert continues the family plein air painting tradition, and opens the gallery to show his own work and some of his father’s canvases.

Perhaps the most famous Rocky Neck art school was founded in 1920 by Hugh Henry Breckenridge, who charged $10 per week ($75 for eight weeks) and brought scores of younger artists to Gloucester between the world wars. Breckenridge and his students were fond of painting wharves and boats, and the property still commands salt-crusted harbor views from the waterfront deck of what is now the Studio Restaurant and Bar.

Open air painters hardly lack for subjects on Rocky Neck. In addition to the obvious marine imagery, flowers bloom profusely in the broad light. Artists with a more analytical frame of mind find drama in the play of light and shadow in the built landscape. Edward Hopper, who spent the summers of 1923 and 1924 in Gloucester, made a big splash with watercolors he painted here. His first commercial success came when the Brooklyn Museum purchased “The Mansard Roof,” which depicts the house of a local industrialist. The home looks much as Hopper painted it more than nine decades ago, its multiple roof lines dissecting the sunlight into modernist blocks.

Downhill from the Hopper house, a right of way leads to a pocket beach with a view of Ten Pound Island — a quintessentially marine subject identified with Gloucester from the days of Fitz Henry Lane forward. Winslow Homer lived with the island lightkeeper in the summer of 1880 as he mastered depictions of working vessels and the intricate relationship of the light in the sky and reflections off the sea.

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Artists continue to decipher the light — the way it bathes the landscape, the way it wraps around and defines forms. John Nesta has had a studio and gallery on Rocky Neck since the mid-1970s , arriving shortly after finishing art school in Boston. “I knew it worked for me that first summer,” he recalls. “I paint early in the morning, starting around 7:30 or even earlier in the summer. You get a whole different look even a half hour later, but the light here has a magic that can’t be beat.

“Even after 40 years,” Nesta says, “I still find new things to paint or a different way of looking.”

It is all about the light.

IF YOU GO

The Rocky Neck Historic Art Trail map can be downloaded at rockyneckarttrail.org. It’s easy to walk the art colony from the municipal parking lot on Rocky Neck Avenue. Gallery hours vary, but during the summer they are usually open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and some remain open in the evenings, especially on weekends or nights of Gloucester Stage Company performances. The North Shore Arts Association gallery is also nearby at 11 Pirates Lane (978-283-1857, nsarts.org). A casual lunch option is the Last Stop deli (273 East Main St., 978-281-2616) for sandwiches, wraps, and baked goods.

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Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon at harrislyon@gmail.com.