Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on June 13, 2005 with the permission of the author and Canton Museum of Art. This text is excerpted from the 12 page illustrated brochure titled Legacy of Cape Ann, published in 1995 by the Canton Museum of Art. The brochure was published to accompany the exhibition of the same name, held at the Museum September 9 - October 29, 1995.

If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the brochure from which it is excerpted, please contact the Canton Museum of Art. directly through either this phone number or web address:


Legacy of Cape Ann

by James M. Keny



Cape Ann is a craggy, rockbound peninsula that juts into the North Atlantic about 25 miles north of Boston. Home to the windswept fishing villages of Gloucester, Rockport and Annisquam, it has been the site of an active art colony since the late 1870's.

Cape Ann cast its spell over important American painters earlier, however. Fitz Hugh Lane, a native of Gloucester, executed a memorable series of engravings and paintings there between 1836 and his death in 1865. In these eerily-still luminist works, Lane depicted Gloucester's harbor and surrounding shores, suspended in time in a hazy belljar of ambient light. A number of other luminist painters, such as John Kensett, Augustus Silva and Edward Moran, also visited Gloucester and essayed the serene beauty of the Cape Ann coast throughout the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

But it was not until 1873 and again in 1880, that another important series of works was painted here, by Winslow Homer. In this group of wood engravings, watercolors and paintings, Homer captured the rugged self-sufficient character of these storm-tossed fishing ports. Through the vehicle of Huckleberry Finn-like boys Homer eloquently mythologized an ebbing way of life -- one tied to the rhythms of the sea versus those of the machine -- in rapidly industrializing post Civil War America. In these carefully designed and elemental works, he painted his youthful subjects lost in a self-absorbed reverie as they wandered the shore hunting for clams, sailed in their hand-hewn dinghies, or loitered the time away talking and looking out to the sea.

These interludes not withstanding, it was not until 1877 when the well respected Barbizon painter, William Morris Hunt, established one of the first American plein-aire landscape painting schools in Magnolia, across the bay from Gloucester, that a true art colony began to emerge on the Cape. By then the resort communities of the Cape were becoming well-known escapes for the urban weary. The picturesque subject matter of the fishing ports and the natural beauty of the rugged setting, coupled with the easy rail and boat links from such Eastern hubs as Boston, New York, Philadelphia and a low cost of living, made the area particularly attractive to artists and art students. As the art colony blossomed throughout the 90's and the first decade of the twentieth century, painters began to outnumber fishermen. And as the fishing industry began to decline, the artists took over the abandoned fishing huts of the departing sailors and converted them to ramshackle studios.

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