Prospect Street, Gloucester is iconic of Edward Hopper's finest watercolors in which the artist masterfully manipulates the medium to make attractive an everyday scene in a fashion that is simultaneously loyal to its location and transcendent of its mundane subject. Hopper skillfully blends the traditional Gloucester architecture with a subjective perspective to create work that is perpetually fresh, modern and utterly American.
At first glance Prospect Street, Gloucester appears to be a quaint and inviting scene of a typically American street. Upon closer examination, however, the absence of human presence and the largely shuttered windows transform the street and are suggestive of his later fascination with the theme of modern isolation. The partially cropped house to the left and the cars to the right of the street direct one's attention to the street, which leads to nowhere in particular and is lined with houses that are largely inaccessible. The concentration on the play of light and shadow on the shapes and varying structures of the pale houses as well as the emphasis on atmosphere breathes life into the work imbuing it with a sense of temporal beauty.
Hopper first visited Gloucester, Massachusetts with fellow artist Leon Kroll in the summer of 1912. The town had long been celebrated as an artists' colony by luminaries such as Fitz Henry Lane, Childe Hassam and Maurice Prendergast for its crystalline light and scenic waterfront. Hopper spent his first trip capturing various views of this scenic Cape Ann port in oil and was so entranced by the beauty of the place that he would return four more times, in the summers of 1923, 1924, 1926 and 1928. His 1923 trip was pivotal in his career as it was at this point that he began using watercolor; the aqueous medium transformed Hopper's work imbuing it with an immediacy and spontaneity that are absent in his more laborious oils, and won him great acclaim. It was on his final visit in 1928 that Hopper painted one of his most outstanding watercolors, Prospect Street, Gloucester.
It is not only Hopper's superb, refined use of the watercolor medium, but also the subject of his Gloucester works, such as Prospect Street, Gloucester, that account for their success and continuing appeal as truly modern works. An introvert, Hopper avoided not only the social aspects of the artists' colony, but also the established pictorial themes, "At Gloucester, when everyone else would be painting ships and the waterfront, I'd just go around looking at houses." (as quoted in C. Troyen, "Hopper in Gloucester," in Edward Hopper, Boston, Massachusetts, 2007, p. 58) As in Prospect Street, Gloucester, the local architecture is a prominent motif in Hopper's Gloucester works and one that would reassert itself throughout his career.
Lloyd Goodrich wrote of Hopper's interest in Gloucester architecture, "He liked the spare New England character of this seaside town; the white wooden houses and churches of the early years, their puritan severity sometimes relieved by jigsaw ornamentation; or the more ambitious flamboyant mansions of the late nineteenth century with their mansard roofs, wide-spreading porches, and jutting dormers and bow windows...Like every realist, Hopper loved character, and these varied structures were as exactly characterized as a portrait painter's sitters. And above all, he loved the play of sunlight and shadow on their forms, the way a white-painted clapboard wall looked under the baking summer sun...Hopper was painting an honest portrait of an American town, with all its native character its familiar ugliness and beauties...He preferred American architecture in its unashamed provincial phases, growing out of the character of the people." (Edward Hopper, New York, 1971, p. 53-54)
Hopper tended to paint his watercolors en plein air, beginning with a basic pencil drawing and filling it in with washes of color giving works such as Prospect Street, Gloucester a fresh luminosity. Simultaneously loose and structured, detailed and mildly reductive, in the present work Hopper employed a simple, earnest technique to create a complex composition. The application of the thin, pale washes is extremely controlled and each is contained within its structural boundaries. This judicious application of the wayward medium is characteristic of Hopper's mature style as is the largely neutral palette highlighted by strong touches of color in the chimney and curtain. Cohesion in the composition is achieved through subtleties such as the similar hues of several of the roofs on both sides of the street and the church spire in the distance.
The sense of fresh spontaneity in Hopper's best watercolors, including Prospect Street, Gloucester, is further evident when compared to his oils of the period. Early in 1934, shortly after his first retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hopper painted a canvas based on Prospect Street, Gloucester, titled Sun on Prospect Street (Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, fig. 1). The well-known oil is almost an exact replica of the watercolor except for small changes such as the omission of the window panes in one of the houses. While impressive, the oil's studied solidity differs markedly from the delicate nuances and ephemeral atmosphere of the watercolor. These differences may explain why the first mature work sold by the artist was a watercolor from his Gloucester period.
Hopper's choice and his earnest and slightly romantic representation of seemingly mundane subject matter in works such as Prospect Street, Gloucester set him apart from his contemporaries and allowed him to create a new and uniquely American iconography. Characteristic of Hopper's best watercolors, Prospect Street, Gloucester is triumphant in its perpetual freshness and modernity.