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

by Judith McCulloch


The person most responsible for assembling this treasure was Alfred Mansfield Brooks who became the museum president in 1940. A descendent of many of the area's oldest families, Brooks left Gloucester around the turn of the century to attend Harvard. He had a distinguished career as an art historian, college professor, and author before retiring to Gloucester. Brooks understood that Lane would eventually hold a preeminent position among nineteenth-century American painters, so he persuaded his family and friends (the so-called "codfish aristocracy") that their Lane paintings should stay in Gloucester at the museum.

The paintings never moved very far. The museum is just a short walk from Lane's gabled granite house, overlooking Gloucester harbor. It was built for him in 1849, not too long after he returned to Gloucester from Boston, and he lived there until his death in 1865. While in Boston, Lane earned his living as a lithographer with an important printing firm. He worked on signs, advertisements and sheet music covers, and became quite accomplished. He completed two successful lithographs of Gloucester while he was still living and working in Boston.

He returned to Gloucester in 1847 and, with his reputation as an artist well established, he was able to support himself by means of his oil painting. From the top floor of his granite house Lane enjoyed sweeping views of the town and the schooner-filled harbor. It was here that he completed in oil the works that he had begun in pencil during drawing expeditions.

With his legs paralyzed from an early childhood illness, Lane would have found it difficult to move from place to place carrying cumbersome equipment. He relied on pencil and paper to record what he saw, but once in the studio he transformed the drawings into paintings that juxtapose the mundane and the transcendent. He shows the commerce of the harbor, the precisely correct rigging of the ships, and the building-by-building profile of the town with a luminous and lyrical vision.

One of Fitz Hugh Lane's few known students, Mary Mellen, was born in 1817 and moved to Gloucester in the 1850s. She and Lane often painted together, and Mellen sometimes made copies of his work. Not surprisingly, her style and subjects were similar to Lane's. The museum's Coast of Maine (1850s) is a rare example of a collaboration between the two artists. Another painting in the museum's collection, Field Beach (Stage Fort Park, 1850s), is Mellen's version of a scene also painted by Lane -- a pastoral seaside landscape with cows.

Art in Cape Ann did not begin with Fitz Hugh Lane, of course. In a special exhibition scheduled to open in June 1994, the Cape Ann Historical Museum will showcase its extensive portrait collection. The exhibition will span three centuries and include some of the museum's earliest paintings, including eighteenth-century portraits by Benjamin Blyth and Gilbert Stuart. The diversity of the collection is apparent in the variety of artists that it includes: Susannah Paine (1792-1862), Alfred Wiggin (1823-83), Addison Center (1830-92), Leon Kroll (18841974), Paul Manship (1885-1966), and Cecilia Beaux (1885-1942), among others.

But it is maritime and landscape art, rather than portraiture, that predominates in Cape Ann. The earliest attributed harbor views in the museum's collection are a pair of miniature watercolors, circa 1815, painted by Gloucester soldier and sea captain John Gorham Low. Both watercolors depict areas of Gloucester harbor where fortifications were in place, a natural interest for a military man turned artist.

Among important nineteenth-century artists to work in Cape Ann were William Morris Hunt, who visited there off and on between 1877 and his death in 1879; and Winslow Homer, a summer resident in 1873 and 1880. When Homer (1836-1910) first arrived in Gloucester he had been experimenting with watercolors and therefore chose to abandon the studio in favor of working outdoors. It was then that he began to master the medium, producing very fine watercolors, almost to the exclusion of oil paintings. A small watercolor from that summer, Ten Pound Island, was included in the museum's 1992 exhibition Harbor Views.

When Homer returned to Cape Ann in 1880, he actually stayed on Ten Pound Island in the middle of Gloucester's busy harbor. A drawing from that summer -- a portrait of William B. Astor's yacht Ambassadress -- is part of the museum's permanent collection. Both this drawing and the 1873 watercolor were included in the 1990 exhibition, Winslow Homer in Gloucester, at the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago.

In early 1993, the museum was given a rare Homer etching, The Life Line (1884). It shows a dramatic sea rescue in a breeches buoy, the lifesaving device often used in the nineteenth century when rescue by lifeboat was impossible. Homer first dealt with this subject in an oil painting with the same title which was shown in 1884 at the National Academy in New York. The painting was an overwhelming success and has been hailed as his first masterpiece.


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