Treasured Museums North of Boston

Fall, 2010

Long before he finally sold enough paintings to be able to afford a house on Cape Cod, Edward Hopper used to scrape together money to summer on Massachusetts’ “other” cape, Cape Ann. There he fell in love not so much with the surf and sailing scenes that had inspired earlier masters like Fitz Henry Lane and Winslow Homer, but with the region’s Greek Revival and Italianate architecture, which he painted in masterpieces like “The Mansard Roof” and “Haskell’s House.”

As travelers flock to the opening of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts wing for Art of the Americas, they’d do well to keep in mind that just a quick train ride or short drive from the MFA, visitors can gain an intimate eyeful both of Hopper’s architectural inspirations and of the work of his mid-twentieth-century contemporaries--painters like Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery and Stuart Davis--by adding to their itineraries a trio of understated, less-trafficked institutes: the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, the Cape Ann Historical Museum in Gloucester, and the newly re-opeed Addison Gallery of American Art, on the campus of the Phillips Academy in Andover. 

As the hub of painterly activity on the North Shore, then and now, Gloucester might first suggest itself as the best place to base operations. But in reality, it’s funky Salem--with its livelier shopping, wider range of accommodations, good restaurants old and new, and closer proximity to Boston--that makes the better home port for a two- or three-day stay.

Salem is undergoing a revival--yet another in its centuries’ long series of ups and downs--thanks in part to the dramatically refurbished Peabody Essex, which was expanded in 2003 and has been drawing high accolades and steady attendance ever since.

A curved glass ceiling soaring stories above the entryway serves as a modern, light-filled spine that connects new galleries with the old, some of which date to 1799. The bright, clean space gives new energy to the museum’s prized collections, which include American decorative art; photography; maritime art (don’t miss the majestic and compelling figureheads in the museum’s oldest and most gorgeous gallery, the East India Marine Hall); and, from Salem’s days as the preeminent trading port in the New World, a vast collection of Asian export art and art from Japan, China, Korea and India. The museum even has a entire Chinese house, Yin Yu Tang, billed as the only complete Qing Dynasty house located outside China.

The Peabody Essex’s new wing, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, added several large galleries to the museum’s footprint, and in that space, from now until August 19, the Peabody Essex is hosting its own blockbuster-level summer retrospective of a mid-twentieth-century artist: Joseph Cornell.

The first major retrospective of Cornell’s work in more than a quarter century, Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination serves as both a thorough introduction to Cornell and a treat for those that already know his work well. The carefully curated show features the box sculptures for which Cornell is most famous, including pieces from his “Medici,” “Aviary,” “Hotel” and “Observatory” series, as well as his collages both early and late, dossiers and other graphic designs, and even a 75-minute loop of his short experimental films.

The show is refreshingly arranged by theme rather than chronology. Traveling from one gallery to the next, it begins to sink in just how much Cornell’s vision was keyed to specific objects of clear totemic importance to him: springs, birds, sand, pennies, bubbles, dovecotes, small Victorian drinking glasses, children’s toys, little rings on rods, images of New York City, tokens from European hotels. In all, the show displays a nearly exhaustive 180 works, including 30 that are on public view for the first time.

Cornell spent nearly all his working life operating out of a modest house in Queens. Hopper, though arguably more of a loner on the art scene, got out a bit more into the world. After he married and began at last in his 40s to realize some success as an artist, he was able to drive around the country and to buy his house in Truro, Mass. Before then, he still managed in the 1920s and 30s to spend most summers in Gloucester.

Before and after him, generations of artists came as well for Gloucester’s harbor views, its rocky coastline and its humble-jumble of city life all crammed onto a small promontory of land. Fitz Henry Lane, Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, and Maurice Prendergast all memorialized Gloucester on the canvas, and the charming Cape Ann Historical Museum returns the sentiment by lovingly displaying their works and those of other local artists with unassuming understatement.

Much of the museum’s first-floor space is given over to the works of marine luminist Lane; the museum’s collection of his work is the largest in the world, and the master’s dramatic seven-gabled granite house is a five-minute walk away, down by the harbor.

Fans of 20th century painters should climb to the third floor, which displays a modest but rewarding collection of works on paper from Avery, Hartley, Davis, and Max Kuehne as well as contributions from perhaps less familiar contemporaries like Charles Hopkinson, Jan Matulka, William Meyerowitz and Zygmund Jankowski, joining works from earlier 20th century artists including Prendergast, Hassam, John Sloan and Hugh Henry Breckenridge.

Ironically, the museum owns no Hoppers of its own, but his monument is literally all around the building: from the third-floor gallery windows, visitors can glimpse the oft-painted inner harbor on one side and the crowded streets and humbler houses Hopper so loved on the other. (It’s a car ride or long walk to Rocky Neck, where the house depicted in Hopper’s most famous Gloucester painting, “The Mansard Roof,” still stands, but the streets immediately surrounding the museum were the inspiration for works like “Sun on Prospect Street,” “Haskell’s House,” and “Anderson’s House.”wink

The museum can be tad disorienting in places--an important Milton Avery oil painting, “Gloucester Landscape,” is tucked into a corner off by itself, and a quirky collection of six Stuart Davis pencil drawings is lined up rather ignominiously in the basement hallway leading the restrooms--but its heart is clearly on its sleeve, of Gloucester and with Gloucester all the way.

To that end, don’t miss the series of seven eerie and moving images in gold leaf on glass of local fish--most now in trouble off Gloucester waters--that haunt a stairwell on the first floor. And be sure to pay respects at what could well be the most evocative object in the entire museum: the oversized, timeworn wooden carving, which stood for 70 years between the twin towers of the iconic Portuguese church in town, depicting a loving, beneficent Mary cradling a Gloucester fishing schooner in her arms.

If Gloucester is the working-class fisherman of the region, Andover, some twenty miles inland, is the well-heeled country gentleman, playing host to perfectly preserved Colonial architecture, tastefully manicured greens and what might arguably be the most prestigious private high school in the country: Phillips Andover. (Joseph Cornell graduated from there in 1921).

The school has an art collection that befits its reputation. The Addison Gallery of American Art owns a staggeringly large array of important American art. John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins, Homer, Prendergast, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler were all part of the museum’s founding collection, since supplemented by purchases and gifts of work from Alexander Calder, Davis, Arthur Dove, Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Charles Sheeler. The Addison owns two Joseph Cornells (“Cage” and “Homage to Brancusi”wink and several Hoppers--three oils (“Freight Cars, Gloucester,” “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” and “Railroad Train”wink as well as the watercolor “Locust Trees” and an etching, “Night in the Park.”

Whether a visitor is able to see any of those is something of a crapshoot. The museum is quite small, which means that most of its collection (totaling 14,000 works in all media) is either in storage or traveling at any given visit. (A major expansion is in the planning stages.)

Through the end of July (the gallery is closed the month of August), the gallery is showing a collection of impressionist paintings belonging to the White Fund, a local charitable trust; a group of late 19th century landscapes from the museum’s own collection; So Long, Farwell, a hodgepodge of works about to go out on loan (including a Pollock, a Homer and an Eakins); and Funney/Strange, a forty-year retrospective of the art of William Wegman.

The gallery devotes its entire second floor to the large exhibit, which includes Wegman’s paintings, drawings, collages, books, videos, film and early photography in addition to his instantly familiar 20 x 24 Polaroids of his dogs. It’s too early to know if Wegman in 50 years’ time will hold the same command over our imaginations as Hopper and Cornell do now, but in the meantime he’s found a dandy place to hang his art.

If You Go

Hotels/Accommodations

The Hawthorne Hotel is Salem’s petite grande dame, understated and gracious and centrally located within walking distance of the Peabody Essex museum, restaurants, shops, the waterfront and nearly all other attractions. Rooms can feel a small (or call it cozy) in a four-poster-bed colonial kind of way. 18 Washington Square West, Salem. Mass. 01970 (978) 744-4080. http://www.hawthornehotel.com

Two blocks away, the newer, more modern Salem Waterfront Hotel offers a wider range of room types and an indoor swimming pool. 225 Derby St., Salem, Mass. 01970 (978) 619-1150. http://www.salemwaterfronthotel.com

As might be expected of an historic New England city, Salem also has a wide range of bed-and-breakfasts. These are often charming, but also quite authentic, meaning they’re a best bet for those who love old houses with small rooms and creaky floorboards. A few to try:

Amelia Payson House. 16 Winter St. (978) 744-8304. http://www.ameliapaysonhouse.com.

Coach House Inn. 284 Lafayette St. (978) 744-4092. http://www.coachhousesalem.com.

Henry Derby House. 47 Summer St. (978) 745-1080. http://www.hentryderbyhouse.com

The Salem Inn. 7 Summer St. (800) 446-2995. http://www.saleminnma.com

Stepping Stone Inn. 19 Washington Square North. (800) 338-3022. http://www.thesteppingstoneinn.com.

Suzannah Flint House. 98 Essex St. Operated by the Hawthorne Hotel. (978) 744-4080. http://www.suzannahflinthouse.com.

Museums

Addison Gallery of American Art. Phillips Academy, Chapel Ave., Andover, Mass. 01810. (978) 749-4015. Admission is free. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays, national holidays, Dec. 24 and for the month of August.  http://www.addisongallery.org.

Cape Ann Historical Museum. 27 Pleasant St., Gloucester, Mass. 01930. (978) 283-0455. Admission is $6.50 for adults, $6 for retirees, $4.50 for students. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Mondays, major holidays and for the month of February. http://www.capeannhistoricalmuseum.org.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, Mass. 02115. (617) 267-9300. Admission is $17 for adults, $15 for seniors and students 18 and older, $6.50 for youths 7-17, and free for children 6 and under. Free admission for everyone Wednesday nights from 4 to 9:45 p.m. Separate ticket, at an additional cost, is required for Edward Hopper exhibit. Museum is open seven days a week. Closed Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. http://www.mfa.org.

Peabody Essex Museum. East India Square, Salem, Mass. 01970. (978) 745-9500. Admission is $13 for adults, $11 for seniors, $9 for students, and free for youths 16 and under and Salem, Mass. residents. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. http://www.pem.org.