Dock Scene, Gloucester is a remarkable example of Childe Hassam's uniquely American vision of Impressionism. Hassam's works of the late 1880s and 1890s are generally considered to be his finest. In 1889 he returned from a trip to Paris where he had immersed himself in the Impressionist aesthetic, and settled in New York where he painted lively urban scenes of the city's famous parks, squares and buildings. During the summers, Hassam retreated to New England, frequently to Appledore in the Isles of Shoals off of the New Hampshire coast, and later to Gloucester on the Cape Ann peninsula in Massachusetts about forty miles north of Boston. It was on these summer painting campaigns at the lively artists' colonies on Appledore and in Gloucester that Hassam perfected his plein-air Impressionist style.
"Although Hassam continued to visit the Isles of Shoals without interruption after [Celia] Thaxter's death, for a while he directed his artistic attention away from them toward Gloucester, which he had visited intermittently since his early student days. Unlike the Isles of Shoals, which was a seasonal resort, Gloucester was a large commercial port, whose year-round fishing trade brought fleets from around the world to its harbor, giving it the flavor, as Baedecker said, of a 'quaint and foreign-looking city.' Like other visiting artists, Hassam usually stayed at East Gloucester, a populous commercial and residential district a few miles away from the town center and connected by electric tram to the main railway. It was from this vantage point that his most characteristic panoramas of the harbor and town were to be painted. In the early and mid-1890s, however, Hassam was less interested in landscape at Gloucester than in figure pictures that recorded scenes of townsfolk and summer residents." (U.W. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, New York, 1994, pp. 92-93)
Executed in June of 1896, Dock Scene, Gloucester is an impressionistic snapshot of the town's more picturesque views and inhabitants. The scene most likely depicts the ferry landing at Rocky Neck at the eastern side of town. "His vision of the old town focused on ladies at leisure, clapboard cottages, and summer strollers at dockside." (W. Adelson, J.E. Cantor and W.H. Gerdts, Childe Hassam: Impressionist, New York, 1999, p. 41) Here, the artist focuses on depicting the area as a seaside resort, tactfully and artfully obscuring evidence of Gloucester's more commercial aspects. Two young men stroll along the picturesque dock in the foreground, while another man rows his small wooden boat through the harbor behind them, and the crowded residential and commercial district recedes into the background. Far from the hardworking fishermen who lived and worked in Gloucester, Hassam instead depicts three men who are enjoying their holiday on a sunny afternoon.
Indeed, at the turn of the century Gloucester was thriving both commercially and culturally. "Yet Gloucester seemed relatively resistant to the twentieth-century forces of change and even to the upheavals that tourism would create, perhaps because of the specific and peculiar character of the town's long association with seafaring and because fisheries and supporting industries continued to flourish here. By the turn of the century Gloucester's combination of healthy industry and growing resort activity was seen to reflect an ideal American vision. 'Gloucester,' said a writer in 1908, 'is one of the most delightful playgrounds in existence, and we believe that that fact comes pretty near to determining its future. Still we think that work is always the best background for play, and is itself the most interesting thing in the world, and every true lover of Gloucester will hope to see industry and beauty develop hand in hand, as they always should.' Manifesting the dual energies of work and recreation and offering reassuring echoes of the American past, Gloucester would seem to have been a perfect venue for the turn-of-the-century American painters of modern life." (H.B. Weinberg, D. Bolger and D.P. Curry, American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915, New York, 1994, p. 125)
Through Hassam's Impressionist gaze, the timeless beauty and tranquility of the quiet fishing village of Gloucester is poignantly recorded in Dock Scene, Gloucester. Gloucester, like Appledore and Cos Cob, Connecticut, offered Hassam the ability to escape from the oppressive and mundane life in the city and allowed his mind to wander and retreat into the depths of his own imagination. Hassam, by fully making manifest onto canvas these introspective journeys, offered viewers of his Gloucester pictures similar passage. Hassam's first biographer Adeline Adams remarked: "How he loved the whole New England coast, with its endless variety of sand, pebbles, and towering granite! . . . To many an attentive eye, the familiar Hassam magic has altered and enhanced the Gloucester scene, the Provincetown scene, the Newport scene. Those places transcended their former selves, because the invisible had been made visible through the painter's art." (as quoted in Childe Hassam: Impressionist, p. 110)
This painting will be included in Stuart Feld's and Kathleen Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.