For five successive summers, artist John Sloan had a fruitful romance with Gloucester. From 1914 through 1918, he painted in the port city, drawing inspiration from the rugged coastal environs. He wrote, “A landscape is a portrait of a place.” The Cape Ann Museum’s current Gloucester Days exhibit features 39 of his “portraits,” all of which recollect those halcyon days in oils. Rich in light and color and with a distinctive sense of place, Sloan’s paintings capture the city’s spirit.
Sloan believed Gloucester to be “one of the odd corners of America, built against Puritan landscape, blue-eyed and rocky.” He painted directly from nature, hauling his paint box, canvases, and easel to various sites, rendering moments of shifting light, sometimes creating two or three canvases a day. During his days here, he painted 292 local scenes “worth keeping.” Those paintings are thought to be among his finest representational works.
In the early 20th century, Gloucester—and in fact the whole country—was on the cusp of change. The Industrial Revolution, turmoil in politics, urbanization, and a world war shifted cultural dynamics not only here but also around the world. In art, America languished in the shadow of European traditions. Walt Whitman decried, “America has yet morally and artistically originated nothing.”
Yet, in the hearts and minds of a loosely joined group of urban artists out of Philadelphia, and later New York, a new voice was developing—one that spoke of a groundbreaking aesthetic. Unwittingly, the group began a movement referred to as The Ash Can School. Their realist works portrayed everyday (sometimes seamy) urban life. Under the guidance of Robert Henri, “The Eight,” as they came to be known, led the revolt in American art. Sloan was an important member.
Sloan toiled in New York for 10 years, honing his aesthetic and painting style while earning a living as an etcher, newspaper illustrator, painter, and art instructor. For a time, he embraced socialism, though his paintings rarely express political themes. An appreciation for the vitality of the lower classes and the ability to see beauty in the mundane kept him grounded.
The 1913 Armory Show, a controversial, cutting-edge exhibition of European and American artists, caused Sloan to rethink his art. Internalizing what others such as Van Gogh and Cézanne were painting, Sloan shifted his emphasis, downplaying the narrative in favor of design and color. Gloucester became a favorable mooring from which to launch his work in new directions.
A centerpiece of his stay in Gloucester was a red cottage he rented each summer. When his wife, Dolly, and their friends would join him, the place became a lively hub for parties, games, and clambakes. The dwelling on East Main Street near what is now the Rocky Neck Artist Colony was a fond subject for Sloan. Our Red Cottage (1916) and Our Red Cottage, Lilacs (1917) make clear his affection for the place. Sloan could walk to the nearby Back Shore and find sea-swept vistas to paint, or hike to the “moors” of bleak Dogtown. (Once home to a hundred or so families, Dogtown Common dwindled to a handful of residents by 1830, and those, mostly women, kept prowling watchdogs—hence the name.)
Decades later, this place of lore and legend held allure for artists, particularly Sloan. He painted there often. The Cape Ann Museum exhibit showcases three paintings of the abandoned settlement, including Evening, Dogtown (1916); in grays and shadowy blues, the artist depicts rows of granite interspersed with boulders—erratics from a glacier—in a kind of haphazard symmetry.
In fact, 26 of the 39 oil paintings in the exhibit portray rock formations. Roses and Rock (1918), for example, is an homage to Gloucester’s granite heritage; clusters of red roses in the foreground contrast with the monumental size and solidity of the boulder behind. A signature work, Sunflowers (1914), was replicated for the catalog cover and is one of museum curator Martha Oaks’s favorites, as it contrasts the lively flowers with granite terrain against the Gloucester skyline.
When Sloan resided here, Gloucester was in the midst of a transition. The city had “one foot in the 19th century and one foot in the 20th century,” as Oaks puts it. To demonstrate this, Sloan focused his eye on the city’s streets. In Hill, Main Street (1916) an automobile, kicking up dust, whizzes past a plodding horse-drawn wagon. Main Street, Gloucester (1917) shows two automobiles vying with a trolley (the “electric”). Gloucester Trolley (1917) depicts passengers excitedly queuing up to climb aboard. Dolly Sloan stands in the foreground, one foot on the tracks, the other on the earthen street, waving backward at the trolley as if in defiance. Passing Through Gloucester (1917) reveals the open space between two houses, a dinghy resting near an inlet, a neighborhood across the salt marsh; in the foreground, a convertible with six finely dressed passengers races past two women strolling on the sidewalk. Clearly enjoying their newfound freedom and speed, two passengers look over their shoulders at the pedestrian past. These are real-life people coping warily, or exuberantly, with change.
Unlike many artists who paint on Cape Ann, Sloan never markedly included the sea in his works. He was clearly more interested in terra firma, where the geometry and colors of a place remain rooted. Perhaps the ever-changing sea was too mutable and evanescent for his liking.
By 1918, Sloan had exhausted the subject of Gloucester. It was time to move on. The following year, he got into a touring car headed for Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he would begin a new chapter in his artist’s quest. But Sloan’s Gloucester paintings left an imprint on American art—one that we, as a region, can perhaps appreciate a little more than most