Editor's note: The following article was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on May 2, 2006 with the permission of the Cape Ann Historical Museum and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact the Cape Ann Historical Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Legacy of Cape Ann: Generations of Artists Drawn to its Shores

by Judith McCulloch




The harbors, beaches, coastal marshlands and rocky terrain of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, are some of the most familiar images in American art. The Cape Ann fishing towns of Gloucester and Rockport have had their portraits painted on numerous occasions.

Many have attempted to define Cape Ann's appeal. It is the quality of the light and air... the rugged power of granite outcroppings...the drama of a coastline punctuated by promontories which give way to sheltered coves...the vitality of the thriving fishing industries.

After his first visit to Cape Ann in 1915, Stuart Davis wrote:

I went to Gloucester, Mass., on the enthusiastic recommendation of John Sloan. That was the place I had been looking for. It had the brilliant light of Provincetown, but with the important additions of topographical severity and the architectural beauties of the Gloucester schooner.

If it is hard to define the lure of Cape Ann, it is not so difficult to see its influence upon the artistic vision of several generations.

It can be argued that explorer Samuel de Champlain was the first artist to visit Cape Ann. In 1606, he sat somewhere on Gloucester's Rocky Neck (an art colony since the nineteenth century) and drew his impressions of the harbor. He called it "Ie beau port," and the artists who followed agreed that it was indeed a beautiful harbor. By the mid-nineteenth century, the number of artists in Cape Ann was steadily increasing. Fifty years later, it had become an important art center.

The Cape Ann Historical Museum has placed itself squarely at the heart of this arts tradition. Its collections can be understood only in the context of Cape Ann's own art history. Through its permanent collections and special exhibitions, the museum explores the connection between artist and place, examining how Cape Ann affects the artists who work there, and how those influences may carry over in a broader sense to the history of art in America.

This mission is in keeping with the museum's origin as a cultural center. It was founded in 1873 as the Cape Ann Scientific and Literary Association, but its antecedents reach back to the earlier years of the nineteenth century, when all of New England was being swept with the spirit of cultural revival. In 1830, the Gloucester Lyceum was organized to give subscribers a chance to hear such distinguished speakers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Ward Beecher, and Horace Mann.

After some adjustments to its name and purpose, the organization acquired its first permanent headquarters in the early 1900s. Located in a Federal period house in downtown Gloucester, the availability of display and storage space made it possible for the group to pursue collections in the fine and decorative arts. In later years, the collections would be extended to maritime and fishery artifacts, books, and photographs.

The Federal period house remains part of the present-day museum. By the 1930s, however, it was necessary to build galleries adjoining the house to accommodate the growing collections. The new space also included an auditorium which enabled the museum to provide a continuing cultural program for the community.

In the late 1960s, the growth of the collection prompted yet another expansion -- a two-story wing with more galleries and increased storage space. The most recent addition, designed by Graham Gund Architects, was completed in early 1993. It contains new exhibition areas for the maritime and fishery collections, a large research center which houses the extensive library and photo archives, and light-filled Atrium Galleries for the museum's collection of twentieth-century Cape Ann art.

This latest expansion increased the overall size of the Cape Ann Historical Museum by sixty percent. The steady growth has been a dramatic reflection of the scope and depth of Cape Ann's fine arts tradition.

The museum is most widely known for its unparalleled collection of paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, the mid-nineteenth-century maritime luminist who was born in Gloucester in 1804. The collection comprises thirty-nine oil paintings, a rare watercolor (his first known work), and more than one hundred drawings by the artist.


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