Friday, July 20, 2007

A Walker in the City: John Sloan and the Gardens of Gloucester

(John Sloan's Sunflowers, Rocky Neck; Dolly Sloan [left] and John Sloan [right] with Alice Beach Winter, Stuart Davis and others at the "Red Cottage" on East Main Street, 1915. Images from Cape Ann Historical Association)

Just as Gloucester is a city of hills, it
is equally a city of gardens. There are the formal gardens of Eastern Point and Coles Island, of Annisquam and Bass Rocks. But there are also the intimate gardens, the terraced ones of Portuguese Hill-secret gardens hidden in the back yards of Dodge and Perkins streets, off Mt. Vernon Street or Washington Square. To see these gardens you must walk the neighborhoods of Gloucester, peering behind wooden fences and over stone walls.

It is worth the search, for there are marvelous gardens to be discovered—Turks’ caps breaking out between fence pickets, xenias suddenly exploding in color, gladioli where you’d least expect them.

The New York painter John Sloan discovered these gardens when he first arrived in East Gloucester during the summer of 1914. For five years he and his wife Dolly lived in a little red Cape Cod cottage that still exists on East Main Street (it’s the next to the last house on the left before you turn to enter Rocky Neck). During those years, fellow painters Charles Allan and Alice Winter and Stuart Davis would share the house with the Sloans. It might be said that under the Sloans' roof a good deal of the history of American art was made.

From photographs taken by Winter you can see the flower beds that surrounded the cottage, which has been beautifully preserved and is still painted a wonderful dark red. And from Sloan’s paintings-he did nearly a hundred that first summer-you can discover his neighbors’ gardens, and those on Rocky Neck and Mt. Pleasant Avenue that are depicted on his bright canvases.

On exhibit at the Cape Ann Historical Association is one of the earliest and finest of Sloan’s Gloucester paintings. It’s called “Sunflowers, Rocky Neck.” In the background there is a breathtaking view of Gloucester’s skyline; and in the foreground there are brilliant sunflowers, obviously part of a Rocky Neck garden Sloan happened upon during his daily walks in search of subjects to paint.

This painting is important, not only because it’s an initial example of Sloan’s Gloucester period, but also because in it he pays homage to that great painter of sunflowers, Vincent Van Gogh, some of whose works Sloan had encountered in New York the year before at the Famous “Armory Show,” which brought European modernism to America and changed the face of American art.

Sloan walked the moors behind his house, painting granite boulders half the size of barns and cows grazing peacefully in that still pastoral time. There’s a spectacular painting he did of Dogtown, also at the Historical Museum, a painting whose tints of purple and dark green perfectly capture the primordial atmosphere of Dogtown before Marsden Hartley made it his own.

I can imagine Sloan on those Gloucester walks, up Prospect Street and over to Winchester Court, down that magical set of steps that take you to the foot of Union Hill, where Sloan painted a busy Main Street of trolley tracks and stores with bright awnings, crowded with shoppers.

The Gloucester of Sloan’s day must have been a wonder for city people like John and Dolly, both native Philadelphians. They picnicked with visitors by the ocean and on the ledges above the Seine Fields. They made friends with the neighborhood children, many of whom Sloan painted.

Again and again in Sloan’s paintings you discover the gardens of Gloucester, as if he found in those intimate and private places, so artfully planted and arranged, the hidden imagination of the city.

It was the same in my childhood many years after the Sloans left Gloucester for Santa Fe, where Sloan was to live, paint and garden in an old adobe house on Garcia Street, off Canyon Road, for the rest of his life. I remember the “Victory” gardens of the war years in which we grew the vegetables our mothers and grandmothers “put up” for the winter. Those gardens taught us an early appreciation of food, along with a care for the earth. In fact, many of us who have vegetable gardens today learned how to cultivate them from our grandmothers and our friends’ mothers during the war years.

Italian and Portuguese families recreated the gardens of Sicily and the Azores, producing the most amazing eggplants, squash and tomatoes, along with grapes from which they made their own wine. And there was a woman down the Fort, Mrs. Frontiero, who grew brilliant orange poppies each year in her yard near O’Donnell-Usen’s plant, the birthplace of Birdseye Frosted Foods. “Oh come, poppy, when will you bloom?” Charles Olson asks in a poem about that garden.

The flowers and vegetables people grow, the gardens they create, say a lot about who we are and how we feel about our lives-indeed about the places we live in. Walk the neighborhoods of the inner city and you will discover a world of pattern and color in gardens that thrive even during the hottest summers. These gardens are the life of the city.

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