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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Harrison Cady's whimsy at Cape Ann Museum

 Wildwood Restaurant, oil on board, 1940s. By Harrison Cady. 

Wildwood Restaurant, oil on board, 1940s. By Harrison Cady. 

A new exhibition at the Cape Ann Museum, “Harrison Cady: View from the Headlands,” brings welcome levity for the summer season. 

Cady (1877–1970), lived and worked in New York and in Rockport. He built a successful career as an illustrator for magazines and books, appearing for years in Life, Boys’ Life, Ladies’ Home Journal and many other magazines. His syndicated cartoon, Peter Rabbit, ran in the New York Herald Tribune for almost three decades. His collaboration with author Thornton Burgess led to dozen of titles, many from the Old Mother West Wind series.

And he painted. Cady’s illustrative style dominated all his work, and the exhibition focuses on the popular and highly accessible (read: children welcome here) world he created from the intersection of animal life and human behavior.

His best works look like Bosch from a kid’s perspective. He’s at his finest creating hectic, cluttered scenes of the street, or of an animal picnic—like “Boisterous Barbecue,” a water and ink work from 1935, with countless animals engaged in amusement. Or like the cover of Boys’ Life magazine from 1935, with details of a summer camp full of adventure bursting forth from a dreaming boy’s head.

His early-century views of Rockport harbor, Stage Fort Park and its little beaches, Pigeon Cove, and the Essex Shipbuilding docks add delightfully to any native’s perspective on the small but perceptible changes in local geography. His various paintings of Motif #1—he calls it Red Fish Shack in one work—are particularly striking. “Betty Ann: Rockport Harbor,” an oil-on-board from the 1930s, shows what used to be a quite healthy beach near what is now the small cove adjacent to the Sandy Bay Yacht Club.

Cady wasn’t an original thinker, but a prolific artist with an advanced sense of composition. His land- and seascapes are enjoyable just for their inside-the-frame shapes alone. When he put his illustrator’s pen down, he worked comfortably with watercolor and with oil—creating robust images no matter what the medium.

Apart from his paintings, the very publications he worked for instill a gentle sense of nostalgia. Good Housekeeping, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Boys’s Life—not only are most of these publications gone, but the very notion that people would avidly read magazines for entertainment is gone as well. Cady worked successfully in what was called the Golden Age of Illustration, an age—and an artistic opportunity—that seems long gone.

“Harrison Cady: View from the Headlands” remains on view through Oct. 28 a the Cape Ann Museum, 27 Pleasant St., Gloucester. For information visit www.capeannmuseum.org or call 978-283-0455.

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