Gloucester Daily Times: Hopping for Hopper; Exhibit breaking attendance records

October 4, 2023

Cape Ann Museum’s ground-breaking special exhibition of works by celebrated American artist Edward Hopper has broken all previous attendance records in the museum’s 148-year history.

The show, “Edward Hopper & Cape Ann: Illuminating an American Landscape,” is in its final weeks, closing Oct. 16.

Attendance to the Hopper show alone already stands at more than 30,000, and has surpassed the usually yearly attendance to Cape Ann Museum, which is roughly 25,000 visitors annually.

To date, the overall number of visitors to Cape Ann Museum in 2023 is more than 50,000.

The slots for the timed-entry tickets continue to sell out, and hours have been extended for the final days. There is a daily limit of 700 visitors to the special Hopper exhibition.

“We have never had so many people at the museum,” said Director Oliver Barker.

The previous attendance record was set in 2019 with the Winslow Homer (1836-1910) exhibition, focused on another noted American artist who traveled to Gloucester to paint, like so many artists in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

“In 2019, we had a total attendance for the year of 39,000 so to be at more than 50,000 this year with still two weeks to go for Hopper and three months until the year’s end is very telling,” noted Barker.

This show has doubled the museum’s usual annual number of visitors.

“We are delighted with the exposure of the museum and sharing what is a local story of national significance. It’s also wonderful to hear from the restaurants and shop owners on Main Street who share that they have seen an uptick — a rising tide carries all boats. This is a fantastic example of the benefits of cultural tourism.”

Telling the untold

This Hopper exhibition, curated by Elliot Bostwick Davis, PhD., is notable on several levels, including that it credits the artist’s wife Josephine, a successful artist before Hopper (1882-1967), with catapulting her husband’s career.

“’Edward Hopper & Cape Ann’ tells the largely ignored but significant origin story of Edward Hopper’s years in and around Gloucester, Massachusetts — a period and place that imbued Hopper’s paintings with a clarity and purpose that had eluded his earlier work,” according to a program statement.

In Bostwick’s 224-page catalogue, she writes: “The success of Hopper’s Gloucester watercolors transformed his work in all media and set the stage for his monumental career.”

The impetus for this exhibition was to chronicle “the untold story of how the region shaped the artist’s future” and became a turning point when he painted on Cape Ann from 1923-1928.

“In 1923, Josephine ‘Jo’ Verstille Nivison (1883-1968) was an established artist, whose paintings had been accepted by the Brooklyn Museum, exhibited at prestigious Manhattan art galleries, and were included in a forthcoming exhibition in London and Paris. Although Hopper and Nivison knew each other from painting experiences and studies with artist and teacher Robert Henri, they met again in Gloucester and began painting together,” according to exhibition material.

When they returned to New York City that fall, Nivison lobbied for Hopper’s work to be included alongside her own in the second major biennial devoted to American watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum; the curators selected six of Hopper’s Gloucester watercolors and the museum eventually purchased “The Mansard Roof” (1923) for $100. This was his first painting sale in a decade.

The Cape Ann exhibition also features Nivison’s artworks, which are clearly delineated in a special section for her work.

It was Nivison who encouraged Hopper to try watercolors because they were more portable than oil paints. (There is also a related story about how Hopper had found Nivison’s cat wandering the streets and returned the feline to her.)

“Despite painting in Gloucester in 1912 and in Maine for six more summers, Hopper initially struggled to find a distinctive artistic voice,” wrote Davis. “Hopper understood that Gloucester, familiar from his earlier trip in 1912, was perhaps his last chance to make a name for himself as a painter at the age of 41. By 1923, he was supporting himself as an illustrator and etcher; his only painting sale had occurred over a decade earlier.”

Sharing Gloucester’s story

This exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art, the major repository of the Hoppers’ work. This show follows the Whitney museum’s exhibition “Edward Hopper’s New York,” which ran from Oct. 19, 2022, through March 5, 2023.

“This inaugural partnership with the Whitney Museum of American Art as a leading national institution is a first for the Cape Ann Museum,” said Barker. “‘Edward Hopper & Cape Ann’ marks the centennial of the summer of 1923 when Edward Hopper created watercolors that earned his first critical acclaim and laid the foundation for future success as one of the greatest 20th century American landscape painters.”

The exhibition also features works brought together from the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, National Gallery of Art, The Philadelphia Museum of Art and 28 other institutions and private lenders.

In terms of local impact, Barker said not only is the Hopper exhibition packed but there is a spinoff to all other parts of the museum.

“While the Hopper exhibit is highly attended, so are all the other galleries,” he said. “It is so wonderful to hear people talking about the museum and its collections. The great strength of this exhibit is that we have provided opportunities to see the fishing gallery and our other spaces. People are understanding those connections and the sense of discovery in these galleries. Literally, all the galleries are full, and people are reading the narratives. This helps us to achieve our mission to be a place of ideas and connection.”

Barker said the Hopper exhibit provided the museum with an extraordinary opportunity to tell Gloucester’s story as a significant and influential place for artistic inspiration and growth.

“The exhibition in exploring this concept of place as a creative catalyst, thanks to Elliot Davis, also recasts Jo Nivison’s role of model and muse to the producer of Hopper’s distinctive style, from the time of their courtship on Cape Ann in 1923 to the last painting to leave his easel in 1965,” he said. “It’s a remarkable story that we are thrilled to share.”

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