Edward Hopper's 1923 trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts was a pivotal moment in his career and the catalyst in the transformation of his reputation from well known illustrator and print maker to one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. It was in the artist's colony on Cape Ann that he met Jo Nivison, his future wife, who would encourage Hopper to use watercolor, the medium that would transform his career.
When Hopper exhibited six of his 1923 Gloucester watercolors in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum that fall, he garnered critical acclaim and sold his first work since the 1913 Armory Show when the institution purchased The Mansard Roof. Buoyed by his new found success, Hopper continued to work in watercolor throughout his career. The nature of the medium allowed him a greater freedom and spontaneity and acted as a counterbalance to the more austere medium of oil painting in his ouevre.
Enchanted by the port town, Hopper returned again in the summer of 1924 when he painted Gloucester Beach, Bass Rocks. As the artist tended to eschew the town's traditionally appealing pictorial subjects, the present work is one of his few watercolors to depict a beach, which he presents as a simplified, modernist rendition of a conventional theme. Hopper uses three broad, horizontal bands of diaphanous color for the beach, water and sky, which are punctuated by the colorful, vertical forms of bathers and umbrellas.
As with all of Hopper's watercolors, light is fundamental to Gloucester Beach, Bass Rocks as are the fluidity and spontaneity of the delicate washes. Hopper's technique and practice of painting en plein air are central to the success of the work. He began with a quick pencil sketch, the remnants of which are still visible in the umbrellas, and filled it in with subtle washes to capture the luminosity and nuances of the summer sun and the warm, thin atmosphere. The dabs of rich color in the umbrellas and beach chair act as a foil for the soft, tawny sand and the ethereal, pale blue sky and add complexity to the picture. Hopper adeptly exploits his support, using exposed paper for much of the beach and highlighting it with several quick dashes of pale purple and brown washes. Similarly he leaves bare paper to denote streams of light that have slipped through the cloister of umbrellas to the left of the composition creating a pattern of sun and shadow on the three seated figures. Hopper's proficiency with watercolor combined with his subjective vision of the scene, give Gloucester Beach, Bass Rocks a lasting freshness.
Hopper chooses to paint the scene from the perspective of a distant observer. A large swath of sand separates him from the bathers, all of which have their backs turned, creating the sensation of isolation. Nascent in Gloucester Beach, Bass Rocks, this motif would pervade much of Hopper's ouevre and dominate his later works. Always the realist, Hopper also sought deeper connections, believing that, "Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination." (as quoted in Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., Edward Hopper: Early and Late, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1987, p. 7)
Throughout his career, Hopper would continue to approach traditional subject matter with a new and thoroughly modern perspective. In later trips to Gloucester and throughout the remainder of his career, he would focus a great deal of his attention on the effects of light and shadow on both human and structural forms and the power of atypical vantage points. The roots of these explorations as well as elements of his later, more abstract works, lie in his early successes in watercolor such as Gloucester Beach, Bass Rocks.