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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Harold Rotenberg retrospective at Cape Ann Museum

 Harold Rotenberg: Pigeon Cove, Rockport. c. 1940s. Oil on canvas, from a private collection.

Harold Rotenberg: Pigeon Cove, Rockport. c. 1940s. Oil on canvas, from a private collection.

They must remember him in Israel. And in France as well. They probably do in Mexico, in Québec, in Austria. They remember him in Dorchester, and in Boston.

And they definitely remember him on Cape Ann.

Harold Rotenberg lived to be 105, but it wasn’t just his long life that created so many memories. It was his paintings, which are on view now at the Cape Ann Museum in a retrospective, “Harold Rotenberg: An American Impressionist.”

He traveled incessantly—painting, but teaching also, influencing multiple generations of artists—and most often found his subjects outdoors, wherever he was. But his paintings—at least these forty or so on view at the museum through June 17—show a consistent and uniform approach. 

The works are mostly impressionistic landscapes. They benefit greatly from a long perspective, and the open gallery allows viewers to stand across the room, away from the paintings, and appreciate the artist’s imagination. Close-up views improve the understanding of texture and technique, but the paintings—and Rotenberg’s intentions—come alive from a distance.

Many are composed traditionally, the subject occupying a central focus, enhanced by smaller details. But some have the subject matter exploding off the edges, or gathered in a second, painted, interior frame, like images of Provincetown. 

Some landscapes have large “throwaway” sections—solid paint areas, setting off the true subject in a kind of statement. But these areas are not just flimsy washes of color. Using heavy paint textures, with liberal use of materials, Rotenberg creates a secondary focus away from intended subject—as in four untitled oils, abstract cityscapes of New York. The effect—one large area of solid color, a second area with the purported “subject”—creates almost two ideas out of one composition.

Rotenberg’s color palette can be dark, but not always. Even in some of the darkest landscapes—like the large areas of black in the New York cityscapes—a glow emerges through the surface, yellowish or gold. That subtle effect is striking—like a hidden possibility.

He ranged far afield. His story—captured in a half-hour video interview, as well as half-a-dozen biographical labels scattered about the room—can be almost as interesting as the paintings. An active century as an artist will do that.

He taught in settlement houses that helped immigrants adjust to life in America (imagine that). He studied at the museum school in Boston, at several academies in Paris, and at the Kunst Academy in Vienna. Apart from his time on Cape Ann—long periods in Gloucester, and eventually Rockport—he lived for an extended time in Israel. He traveled perpetually it seems, soaking up the views and translating that experience to the canvas. His family, many of whom are artists, includes a daughter, Judi, whose galleries in Rockport and on Newbury Street in Boston helped extend his reputation.

Rotenberg’s works are striking, each in their own way. That his long career would show such a uniformity of technique—perhaps an illusion in this relatively focused collection of work—is a marvel. Rich in texture, inventive in composition, his paintings welcome travelers of the world, and travelers of the imagination.

Visitors to the museum shouldn’t miss Ellyn Kröger’s small sampling of pastels and acrylics—(eight on view in the entryway, and one upstairs in the compelling “Championing Women,” a show of Cape Ann women artists from the permanent collection). Airy, sensitive explorations of landscape—some marked with vertical energy that creates movement and meaning—Kröger’s paintings deserve contemplation.

“Harold Rotenberg: An American Impressionist,” runs through June 17 at the Cape Ann Museum, 27 Pleasant St., Gloucester. The exhibition is free with museum admission. Visit www.capeannmuseum.org or call 978-283-0455.

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