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Take An Art Tour of Cape Ann: Art Colonies, Art Galleries and the Joy of Plein Air

Take An Art Tour of Cape Ann: Art Colonies, Art Galleries and the Joy of Plein Air
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The rugged coastal landscape of Cape Ann has always held a strong magnetic attraction for artists. The challenge of capturing with paint and brush the magical light, the crashing of waves on rocks, majestic boats under sail, or the workday lives of fishing folk is too compelling for some to resist. Cape Ann has a long history with artists, and even today, in the temperate months, you'll be able to spot painters en plein air (French for "in the open air") who have their easels set up by the beaches, at the waterfront, or anywhere else that takes their fancy.

Naturally, since the creation of art is ubiquitous here, it follows that there are many art galleries, museums, working art studios and collaborative spaces that can educate and inspire other artists and enthusiasts alike. In this blog post, we'll review a bit of Cape Ann's "art history" and provide ideas for where to go to discover locally-produced art.

The Rockport Art Colony & the Rocky Neck Art Colony

In the mid-1800s, artists started to descend on both Gloucester and Rockport in great numbers, and art colonies (also known as artist colonies) were formed in both towns. 

The Rocky Neck Art Colony in Gloucester is one of the oldest working art colonies in the country. Renowned artists, such as Fitz Henry Lane, Childe Hassam, John Sloan, and Emile Gruppé resided or spent time there, as did Leonard Craske, who created Gloucester’s famous “Man at the Wheel” statue. Rocky Neck’s vivid art scene also attracted writers such as Louisa May Alcott and Rudyard Kipling.

Fitz Henry Lane, Gloucester Harbor from Rocky Neck, 1844. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Cape Ann Museum
Fitz Henry Lane, Gloucester Harbor from Rocky Neck, 1844. Oil on canvas.
Courtesy of the Cape Ann Museum


In Rockport, around the same time, a similar artistic renaissance was taking place. Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Lester Hornby, and Anthony Thieme are just a few of the artists who were inspired by Rockport’s charms. Rockport’s most famous building, Motif No.1, achieved its fame by becoming the subject of countless works of art. The humble fishing shack is still popular with artists, photographers, writers and tourists.

Today, Gloucester and Rockport still benefit from a vibrant arts scene. Both towns offer a wide array of art galleries and museums and working artists still use local studios to produce paintings, photographs, sculpture, prints, textiles, jewelry, and more.

What's the deal with Plein Air Painting?

Plein air painting is not just a passing fad. Technically, the practice of creating art out-of-doors has been around pretty much forever, but it was popularized by the French Impressionists, who were particularly obsessed with light and its ever-changing qualities. The other hallmark of plein air painting is that the artists paint the subject matter or scene that is directly in front of them at the time. This is unlike the development planned studio works that are created from a photo, a memory or by other means. Plein air paintings provide a glimpse into a fleeting moment in the artist's life.

As of 2016, Cape Ann is home to the Cape Ann Plein Air Competition & Festival. Taking place in October, the festival is a weeklong celebration of plein air art and artists. Participating artists from around the country compete for prizes, painting in prime locations throughout Cape Ann's four towns (Gloucester, Rockport, Essex and Manchester-by-the-Sea). All of the judged works are painted in real-time and without the benefit of photographs.

Cape Ann Plein Air Competition Logo
Cape Ann Plein Air Competition


Cape Ann Art Galleries & Museums

The Rocky Neck Historical Art Trail website provides maps and an abundance of information about Rocky Neck's multitude of art-related sites. The Rocky Neck Historical Art Trail can be followed at any time. The Cape Ann Artisans Studio Tour, also self guided, is an open studios event that takes place in Spring and again in Fall of each year at locations across Cape Ann. There are many more galleries than we have space to describe here, but visiting the sites below will give you a good introduction to Cape Ann's locally produced art.

Gloucester MA Art Galleries & Museums

Rockport MA Art Galleries & Museums

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Call our Guest Experience Specialists toll-free at (888) 973-3864 or book online.

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