In Rockport, artists kept the Depression at bay

Bessie Hoover Wessel’s “Blacksmith Shop, Rockport, 1930s.’’ The restaurant was an artists’ hub at the time. Bessie Hoover Wessel’s “Blacksmith Shop, Rockport, 1930s.’’ The restaurant was an artists’ hub at the time. (Collection of The Cape Ann Museum)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / August 24, 2010

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GLOUCESTER — The 1930s are not known for being madcap. But in the artists colony of Rockport, the Great Depression wasn’t so depressing. The annual Rockport Art Association’s Artists’ Ball, for one, was such a spirited scene that in 1932 local officials called in the state troopers to keep the party in check.

The Depression hit some Cape Ann communities hard. Gloucester, for instance, struggled to keep its fishing industry afloat. But Rockport didn’t even attempt to buoy up its granite quarries, which had faltered as paving stones on streets gave way to gravel. As “Ars Long, Vita Brevis: Rockport Artists in the 1930s,’’ a bubbly exhibit at the Cape Ann Museum spells out, the picturesque seaside town had already positioned itself as a magnet for artists and tourists, and consequently weathered the economic storms fairly well.

You know it’s an artists’ town when residents can point you to “Motif #1,’’ the site that all the painters paint — a red fishing shack at the end of a pier. In the summer, artists came in droves as they had for decades, snapped up old icehouses and fishing shacks for studios, and learned to paint at several schools. The best known of them — Emile A. Gruppe, Anthony Thieme, and Jon Corbino — are names that don’t carry the same weight as those of Hans Hofmann, Arshile Gorky, and Robert Motherwell, who were busily bringing Provincetown fame as an artists’ outpost at the other end of Massachusetts Bay.

Still, these were artists with burgeoning careers. Corbino was written up in Life magazine, and according to curator Martha Oaks was dubbed “The Rubens of New England.’’ The nickname alone suggests why he doesn’t have the prominence of the Provincetown painters. Corbino was a romantic in the age of Modernism. His paintings echoed through centuries with their attention to a figure’s contours and volume at a time when cutting-edge art was abstract.

Corbino is at the center of “Ars Long, Vita Brevis.’’ He painted the lush, warm-toned Renaissance-style nude that gives the exhibit its name, a red-draped beauty with a mask pushed up from her face and a skull at her feet. Another Rockport painter, Ann Brockman, was his model.

More to the point, Corbino appears to have been the chief instigator and social butterfly of Rockport’s artsy crowd in the 1930s. An unfinished Corbino mural, “The Last Supper,’’ is the show’s centerpiece. It depicts several of his compatriots settling in for a meal at the Blacksmith Shop restaurant, an artists’ hub that fed, watered, and hired artists who needed cash for paint. Thieme painted it, and so did Bessie Hoover Wessel.

Corbino’s “Last Supper’’ has nothing of the dramatic import or compositional mastery of DaVinci’s original, but it’s a rollicking tribute to the crowd. Another Corbino high-spirited dash-off, “A Birthday Card for Norman von Rosenvinge,’’ painted on cardboard, cheekily depicts several horses from the rear, each representing a local artist.

The show brims with small gems, and delineates a shift from Impressionistic landscape to a greater emphasis on abstraction, although these Rockport artists never completely surrendered to it. Gruppe’s “New England Village (Rockport)’’ has the giddy glow of an Impressionist painting, although Gruppe worked with fat, lush brushstrokes, and the straight lines and planes of his street scene are pleasingly jumbled.

Iver Rose’s abstracted “Granite Worker,’’ a mostly gray piece, depicts a bent man framed by the sharp angles and long edges of granite; the diagonal of his back plays against the lines of the rocks around him. Herbert Barnett’s “Rockport Landscape’’ is also a construction of crisscrossing lines — diagonals, verticals, horizontals — with the planes in between filled in with color, all adding up to houses snug on a hill.

One of the old crowd is still around — Harold Rotenberg, who this year turns 105 and is the patriarch of the Rotenberg clan that ran the Judi Rotenberg Gallery on Newbury Street for nearly 40 years, until it closed in June. His painting “The Keystone Bridge, Rockport’’ is a minor one — gray and lean and awkwardly composed — compared with his more exuberant, brushy later works.

The exhibit features just a couple of references to the 1930s most of us picture. Richard Recchia’s elegant bronze sculpture “Down and Out,’’ modeled in 1929, depicts a long-limbed man on a sagging bench, head down, hands plunged deep into his pockets.

And painter Samuel Hershey, better known for his landscapes and portraits and a WPA mural at Rockport’s old Town Hall, long since destroyed, strays into social commentary with the dark, prescient “Crucifixion.’’ In it, he nails Bruno Hauptmann, the convicted and executed kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby, to a cross, and surrounds him with cameras, a radio broadcaster, a hot dog vendor, and a peddler of tiny souvenir crucifixes. The Lindbergh kidnapping was the first mass-media event, and Hershey captures its seaminess.

Oaks supplements the art in the show with photographs and ephemera that bring the bustling scene to life: Corbini and his buddies in their swimsuits, lounging on the beach; an autograph book that Hershey’s wife, Eleanor Weber Hershey, had all the gang make sketches in; menus from the Blacksmith Shop.

When World War II hit, the art crowd dispersed. Not until the 1950s, when Route 128 reached up into Cape Ann, did Rockport dust itself off, shine itself up, and draw hoards of tourists again.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

ARS LONGA, VITA BREVIS: Rockport Artists in the 1930s At: Cape Ann Museum, 27 Pleasant St., Gloucester, through Oct. 16. 978-283-0455,