Estate of Edith Roberts
[art market, New York]
During the 1890s, the fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, was becoming known as a place for artists. During the summers, its hotels opened their doors to visitors from Boston and New York, who brought easels and brushes and set to work painting from its docks and wharves. Although several of John Twachtman's friends were among those who made summer pilgrimmages to Gloucester during the decade, he did not venture there until the turn of the century. Invited by his old friend Frank Duveneck, a Gloucester summer veteran since 1890, Twachtman came with his family in June 1900, settling into accommodations at the Rockaway Hotel on Rocky Neck, a piece of land extending into the Inner Harbor from the East Gloucester peninsula. Staying through the summer, Twachtman taught the art students who converged on the town and painted outdoors.
In Gloucester, Twachtman reveled in the company of his fellow artists and created dynamic works inspired by the brilliance of Cape Ann's sunlight and the varied compositional possibilities afforded by the array of boats, docks, makeshift piers, and jagged coastlines. He returned to Gloucester in the summer of 1901. He was again in Gloucester the following summer, when he passed away suddenly in August at the young age of 49, ending his career at a time when his art was at its most exuberant and confident.
After many years of focusing almost exclusively on the subject matter of his Greenwich, Connecticut, property, the picturesque scenery and brilliant light of Gloucester had a liberating effect on Twachtman. Painting alongside old and new friends, and venturing to the ends of piers and to the tops of hills overlooking lively harbors, he created many of his most innovative works. Leaving behind the elaborate layering methods he had used in Greenwich, he returned to the direct alla prima approach of his Munich years, finding "joy in the first attack." To facilitate a direct method, he often worked on cedar cigar-box lids, which he could carry easily, dashing off a design when something of interest caught his eye.
The spontaneity of Twachtman's Gloucester technique recalled the approach of his Munich-period art from the 1870s, but whereas the freedom of his Munich style had reflected the experimental approach of an artist at the start of his career, his Gloucester style was the result of his greater confidence and a mature artistic vision. As a critic for the New York Tribune noted in his obituary in 1902:
[O]f late years, [Twachtman's] ideas underwent a clarifying process; his hand became firmer as his vision became more acute, and in the paintings of this period, he showed that he had traveled far from the uncertainties of his earlier experiments. His work became stronger in design, more attractive in color and more delicate in atmosphere. At the same time his art increased in personal force [with] more subtlety and depth . . . [and] greater pictorial freedom without sacrificing accuracy and form.
Gloucester Scene epitomizes Twachtman's Gloucester approach. Painted on a thin reddish-toned board, possibly once used for a shipping crate, the scene features a docked sailboat with a warehouse behind it, its sides cropped by the picture's edges. Twachtman painted the work with the vitality, confidence, and succintness that characterizes his Gloucester art. He recorded the strong horizontality of the warehouse with broad strokes of thin pigments applied with wide brushes. He captured the sleekness of the sailboat hull with just a few quick strokes of blue and white paint. He suggested the stillness of the day in his flat treatment of the open sail, while conveying the gentle rustle of the water by using his brush in a free rhythm to note the play of reflections in its surface. As in many of his Gloucester works on panel, Twachtman was very sensitive to the color of his support, and gave it an important role in the design. Indeed, throughout the image, the coolness of the blues and greens of his paints is balanced by the warm red-brown panel, which appears as an undertone as well as color in its own right, in areas of the image where it is left exposed. By closely cropping the composition and compressing the space, Twachtman created a work that verges on abstraction, focusing our attention as much as the surface as on the subject.
Gloucester Scene may be identified as one of the works that Twachtman created during his 1901 summer stay in Gloucester. At the end of this Gloucester sojourn, Twachtman sent twenty-four charcoal thumbnail sketches of works he had completed that summer to his son, John Alden Twachtman, who was recuperating from an illness in Bemis, Maine. Among the images he sent along is a sketch of Gloucester Scene with its dimensions indicated by the artist as "9 [width] x 12 [height] in." Twachtman clearly considered the work to be finished as he signed it, although his signature has been largely rubbed away over the years.
A freely painted glimpse of iconic Gloucester subjects-a sailboat and a fish processing warehouse-Gloucester Scene is an excellent example of the vitality and modernity of Twachtman's Gloucester art.