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

by Judith McCulloch




The Portrait of a Place exhibition included one early (1916) Davis oil depicting a Gloucester street scene, and two undated works which were probably from a later period. It is obvious that Davis was strongly influenced by Cubism, as his Gloucester work from the 1930s clearly illustrates. He began re-assembling things he saw on the Gloucester waterfront into collage-like paintings. His new "architectural beauties" included docks and piers, vessels, rigging, equipment, and even gasoline pumps. Davis did not return to Cape Ann after the 1930s, but those Gloucester images lingered on in his work for decades.

Although Edward Hopper (18821967) first visited Cape Ann in 1912, a few years before Sloan and Davis, he did not actually settle down to work there until the 1920s. The artist found that the houses in Gloucester were the perfect subject for his American realist sensibility. His favorites were the nineteenth-century vernacular Cape Ann houses with their mix of Greek and Italianate styles. His hard edges and stark light caught the bracketed entrance doorways, the gables, window bays, and other architectural details. Missing from virtually all of his Cape Ann paintings from the 1920s, however, were people.

The Portrait of a Place exhibition included both a Hopper watercolor and oil form this period, reflecting his apparent ease in moving from one medium to another without changing the vital character of the work. "The only thing that endures in art," he said, "is a personal vision of the world."

Marsden Hartley (1877-1843) also exhibited a unique artistic viewpoint as he revealed in works executed in Cape Ann during the 1920s. Although Hartley wandered the globe and experimented with countless styles, his work was always deeply personal. His best Cape Ann paintings had a singular focus -- the interior uplands known as Dogtown.

Hartley returned in the 1930s, drawn back by his memories of Dogtown, and quickly declared, "Dogtown is mine." What he laid claim to was the same place Sloan had painted in 1916, a 3,000-acre expanse of rock-strewn land which had been uninhabited since the mid-nineteenth century.

"I go alone empty handed & sit in 'Dogtown Common' -- a weird stretch of landscape...all boulders and scrub," Hartley wrote in a letter to a friend. It was his place of emotional and spiritual rejuvenation, and his Dogtown paintings and poetry are filled with haunting power. In 1985, the Cape Ann Historical Museum mounted a special exhibition, Marsden Hartley: Soliloquy in Dogtown, which combined a small group of his paintings with silk-screened panels of his poems.

Milton Avery (1885-1965) brought a fresh, lighter touch to Cape Ann during the dozen visits he made from 1920 through the mid-1940s. His Gloucester paintings reflect his development as an artist, moving from a rather conservative Impressionism to his distinctive mature style. An exhibition at the Cape Ann Historical Museum in 1989 entitled Milton Avery on Cape Ann, included works form 1920 through 1948. In the period between 1931 and 1934, Avery had spent every summer in Gloucester with his artist wife, Sally Michel Avery. The family ties to Cape Ann were strong -- they met in Gloucester and their daughter, March, was born there in 1932. The harbor and the fishing industry naturally became favorite subjects for his work.

By the 1930s, Avery had begun to favor broad, flat areas of watercolor or gouache and to use sketches as the basis for his paintings. The Cape Ann Historical Museum's two Avery gouaches date from the period of his mature style. In Bridge to the Sea, two figures are seen from behind as they cross the wooden bridge to Good Harbor Beach. Nancy B. (1944) shows a wharf area with one of the vessels named March after his daughter. The museum's collection also includes the "Mother Ann Sketchbook," drawings which Avery produced at Mother Ann cottage on Eastern Point, where the Averys frequently stayed.

Through the years, hundreds of other artists have visited, moved to, or been born in Cape Ann. Today, in the tradition established by John Sloan and other New Yorkers, artists such as Nell Blaine and Joseph Solman leave the city to spend summers in Gloucester. Nationally known sculptor Walker Hancock has maintained his home and studio in the Folly Cove section of the city since the 1920s. All three are represented in the museum's collection, together with other fine contemporary artists.

The Cape Ann Historical Museum does not own work by all of the artists mentioned in this article, nor does it aspire to own or exhibit work by every artist who has worked in the area. It is, however, aggressively seeking the best and most representative Cape Ann art from all periods. With more than 1,500 names now in its artist files, the museum is also striving to record the area's rich artistic heritage, and includes artists working in Cape Ann today.

About the author

Judith McCulloch was Administrator at the Cape Ann Historical Museum at the time of writing of this article.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above 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:

This article was also previously published in American Art Review, Volume VI, Number 1, February-March 1994.


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