De Hirsh Margules, Mother Ann Lighthouse, Eastern Point, Gloucester, 1946. Gouache on paper. Gift of Jean M. Horblit, 2002. [Acc. #2002.004.002]
GLOUCESTER — The pervasive reek of fish, and a sky filled with gulls are signature elements of summer here in the heart of Cape Ann; I firmly believe those not beguiled by its rough charms and desolate beauty just haven’t been here yet. (Full disclosure: I live just a few miles down the road.) Gloucester’s easy sense of self makes it unpretentiously authentic down to its bones — a “real” place, as someone I know once called it, an unvarnished anomaly, resolutely true to itself..
Was it that grounded unfussiness that struck Edward Hopper as he stepped off the train here in the summer of 1923? He had been once before, in 1912, on the urging of his friend the artist Leon Kroll, and returned home to New York to a decade of futility. By the time his train pulled into Gloucester in 1923, he had only ever sold a single oil painting, a 1911 picture of a heeling sailboat at the 1913 New York Armory Show, where European radicals like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse would make their American debuts. For Hopper, that first modest success must have felt like his last — suddenly, instantly outdated and parochial-seeming amid the shock of the new. Hopper, 41, unmarried, and scratching out a living in commercial illustration, had come to Gloucester in 1923 in search of something that must have felt like a last chance.
That’s just one of the rich stories to be found in “Edward Hopper & Cape Ann: Illuminating a Landscape,” a new exhibition that opened at Gloucester’s Cape Ann Museum this week. In the handsome catalog that accompanies it, curator Elliot Bostwick Davis tracks the arc of one of the most significant careers in American art — one that came close to never-was. With its 60-plus works, about half of them on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art, Davis positions that Gloucester summer as a pivot point where Hopper, finally, started to become Hopper. Gloucester, bustling, gruff, and workaday, its weatherbeaten clapboard houses piled into a rocky nook of coast, gave him what he had been looking for at last.