GLOUCESTER -- In the watercolor from 80 years ago, the yellow house on Prospect Street glows in the sunlight. It is a peaceful scene of manicured lawns and neatly parked cars, with the twin steeples of the Portuguese Church in the distance.
Then there's real life. On a recent morning, Mary Ann Orlando sat at her kitchen table inside that very same house, No. 98, and grumbled as she gazed at a reproduction of the Edward Hopper painting in front of her. She complained about the run-down rentals that surround her well-maintained two-story home, now covered with gray vinyl siding.
"This makes me sad," she said of "Sun on Prospect Street." Then she added, motioning to the painting, "I'd rather be here than in the mess we have now."
The work is one of 16 images of Gloucester in a vast Hopper exhibition that opened this month at the Museum of Fine Arts -- the largest collection of Hoppers to be shown in Boston in more than 50 years. The show features many of the artist's iconic works -- noirish scenes of urban loneliness, including the famous "Nighthawks" -- but it also gathers a number of rarely seen paintings created during the artist's lesser-known early years in Gloucester.
The town meant a lot to Hopper. He arrived single, just past 40, and virtually un known as an artist, working as an illustrator and living in boardinghouses during his time in Gloucester. He left the town as a married man who had tasted his first successes as a painter.
But for many in Cape Ann, the MFA show has led to a complicated mix of emotions. There's excitement at seeing their houses as museum pieces, in some cases for the first time. Still, the paintings offer a disappointing reminder of how their neighborhoods have fallen into disrepair since Hopper painted them.
"It's painful to look at the before and after pictures, just heartbreaking," said Prudence Fish, a retired real estate broker who recently quit the Gloucester Historic District Commission because she felt it wasn't working hard enough to preserve important properties. "What's left of old Gloucester is now buried under layers of vinyl siding."
With its picturesque ocean views and proximity to New York and Boston, Gloucester has long been a favorite spot for artists. Long before Hopper's visits in the 1920s, Winslow Homer and Fitz Henry Lane, among others, set up shop. But Hopper didn't look for the most scenic views for his paintings. He chose houses in town, many of them quite ordinary or out of fashion, for his watercolors and oils.
"At Gloucester, when everyone else would be painting ships and the waterfront, I'd just go looking at houses," Hopper later recounted. "It was a very solid-looking town. The roofs are very bold, the cornices bolder. The dormers cast very positive shadows."
Carol Troyen , the MFA curator who helped organize the current show, said that many of the houses Hopper depicted were not viewed as special when he painted them in the 1920s. Just the opposite.
"In this era, these Victorian houses were really considered junk," said Troyen. "I assume that Hopper liked them nonetheless, not just to be contrary but because he's interested in light and space."
Though Hopper is more famous for his later work, art historians say that his time in Gloucester was essential to his personal and professional development. This is, after all, where he connected with Jo Nivison, who remembered him from her days in art school a decade earlier and who would become his wife.
"In the fall of 1923, she was invited to show the watercolors she had been painting at the Brooklyn Museum," said Gail Levin, a City University of New York professor who has written more than a dozen books on Hopper and is considered the preeminent scholar on the artist. "Hopper was not invited, but she asked them, 'What about the works of my neighbor, Edward Hopper?' His whole career took off then."
The Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibited Hopper's work in a group show that earned him critical praise, and it paid $100 for "The Mansard Roof" in 1923. The painting depicts a majestic waterfront Victorian in its summer glory. The house is still out on Rocky Neck, an exclusive neighborhood high over the bay, and it looks much the same, minus the billowy awnings.
James and Hope Bagshaw owned the house for years, and they always knew about the Hopper painting, said their son Tory Bagshaw, by phone. At one point in the 1960s, James Bagshaw even tried to buy the picture from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Nothing came of that. With his parents gone, Tory Bagshaw said that he's now renovating the inside and getting it ready so he and his wife, Greta, can live there full-time.
The towering Victorian atop a hill seen in "Haskell's House" is also largely intact, with even the decorative iron trim on the roof. But Hopper's view from Main Street is gone. In the painting, the house is framed by blue sky, a white fence, and shrubs. Today, the house is almost hidden from the busy road. Tall evergreens screen the front, and a group of low-lying gray townhouses with orange doors block much of the side view. An iron fence in front is padlocked, with two large dogs roaming the yard. Visitors must drive down a narrow, alley-like street running to the back side.
The three-story house on Western Avenue that served as a model for Hopper's painting "Anderson's House" is still yellow. But the paint is peeling in spots, a bumper sticker can be seen on the second floor window, and some of the shutters are missing.
On Prospect Street, the house next to the Orlandos ' shows more signs of wear, from the brown paint peeling around the door to the tiny, scrubby front lawn. Nine satellite TV dishes hang off the exterior. A woman leaving the house declined to be interviewed, saying she couldn't speak English.
"This street was once one of the most popular streets," said Joe Orlando, Mary Ann's husband, who bought the house with her in the mid-1960s. "Clean, nice, everybody took care of their houses. Now you can see next door. Why don't they keep up their house?"
Other nearby homes appear to have received much more attention.
Just around the corner, off Prospect Street, Spleen Eck's home still boasts the distinctive yellow tower that is partly visible at the right side of Hopper's 1926 watercolor "The Hill." Since buying the Marchant Street property in 2001, Eck and his wife have redone the kitchen, front porch, and various other portions of the house. They're going to paint the exterior soon.
And then there's Susan Pundt, whose home is next door to the Ecks' and at the base of Hopper's "Gloucester Roofs" painting.
On a recent spring day, Pundt was outside raking mulch in planting beds that she maintains on the public granite steps leading to Hopper's view. Pundt's fiance, Colin Campbell, called to her when he spotted a reporter examining the MFA catalog showing the 1928 watercolor.
"He's got the picture!" Campbell yelled.
Pundt put down her rake and ran up the steps to see the painting she had glimpsed only in a grainy black-and-white copy a neighbor had brought over a few years earlier.
"It certainly makes the house more special to know it's been immortalized by one of Cape Ann's most important visitors," she said .
A few weeks later, Campbell picked up Pundt at work -- she's a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital -- and the couple headed to the MFA.
Standing in front of "Gloucester Roofs," Pundt talked about purchasing the house 10 years ago and remodeling a front apartment.
"I can feel the ocean air," she said, gazing at the painting in the gallery. "I can hear the seagulls."
"Oh, they've screwed it to the wall, the bastards," Campbell said with a laugh, joking that he'd like to take it home with him.
Pundt praised the bright colors of the rooftops. Gazing at the work, she said that her thoughts went to the top rails on the stairway leading down to her home. In the picture, they frame the view. In reality, the iron has been mangled, smashed by a snowplow a few winters ago.
"Now I'm triply fired up to get them fixed," she said.