Motif No. 1
April 6, 2011 8:40 PM   Subscribe

The dark red fishing shack on Bearskin Neck wharf in the artists' colony Rockport, Massachusetts "is one of the most famous buildings in the world and instantly recognizable to any student of art or art history." America's most-painted building received its name in an impulsive exclamation by famed illustrator, etcher and art teacher Lester Hornby. Its name? Motif No. 1 "One day when a student brought for criticism a pencil drawing of the house, Hornby exclaimed, 'What-Motif No 1 again!' It has been that ever since."

"The building has served three purposes since the 1800s — as a storage shed for fishing gear, as a subject for painters and other artists, and as a marketing tool for Rockport and New England."* In the 1930s, painter John Buckley used the shack as his studio. He sold it to the town in 1945. The town "purchased the Motif as a monument to Rockporters who had served in the Armed Services." It was destroyed in the Blizzard of 1978 and rebuilt later that year.

It has been commemorated as a U.S. Postal Stamp. And "[e]very May since 1949, the town has celebrated the return of spring and the kickoff of 'the season' with a festival named in honor of the famed fishing shack." This year's Motif No.1 Day: May 21, 2011.
posted by ericb (24 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Trivia: In an homage to his hometown, Pixar writer and director Andrew Stanton featured Motif No. 1 as a painting hanging on the wall of the dentist in the animated film Finding Nemo.*
posted by ericb at 8:41 PM on April 6, 2011

Seriously overstating this "world" thing, like many americans. Totally not famous.
posted by wilful at 8:57 PM on April 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Thanks, ericb! Very, very cool story and piece of local history. I'm excited to learn about "Motif No. 1 Day" and might have to make the roadtrip.
posted by Miko at 9:03 PM on April 6, 2011

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America.  We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington.  There were meadows and apple orchards.  White fences trailed through the rolling fields.  Soon the signs started appearing.  THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA.  We counted five signs before we reached the site.  There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot.  We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing.  All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits.  A man in a booth sold postcards and slides -- pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot.  We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers.  Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

"No one sees the barn," he said finally.

A long silence followed.

"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."

He fell silent once more.  People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura.  Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."

There was an extended silence.  The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender.  We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future.  We've agreed to be part of a collective perception.  It literally colors our vision.  A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."

Another silence ensued.

"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.

He did not speak for a while.  We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

"What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said.  "What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?"
posted by skwt at 9:11 PM on April 6, 2011 [11 favorites]

Thanks for putting this together, ericb! And yeah, Motif No. 1 day sounds intriguing...
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:36 PM on April 6, 2011

Interesting article on Rockport, MA in recent NYT.

Fwiw, I stayed a night once many years ago either in "Motif No. 1" or in a building quite near it.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 9:36 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

My dad, who lives on the north shore, pointed that out to me once. Ha!
posted by ducky l'orange at 11:25 PM on April 6, 2011

Not famous at all outside USA.
posted by londongeezer at 1:11 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Really interesting post, thanks and an insight into something completely novel to me.

As with others, I'm don't get the world famous or most painted status. The links don't really help me understand why it was so popular - is it unique, the first of its kind or are red sheds an American obsession?
posted by KirkpatrickMac at 2:05 AM on April 7, 2011

I'm in eastern Canada and have been making and teaching art for many years and have never heard of this particular building before. Great story, though!
posted by oulipian at 4:04 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

As an American student of American art history, I'm feeling pretty self-conscious that I've never heard of this building before.
posted by Comic Sans-Culotte at 5:12 AM on April 7, 2011

The links don't really help me understand why it was so popular - is it unique, the first of its kind or are red sheds an American obsession?

It was an ordinary building that happened to be in a place to which artists flocked. Thus, it got painted or drawn or photographed so many times that inevitably some of the images got exposure, and some even became fairly famous. It's that simple.

Also we are really seriously into red sheds here.
posted by padraigin at 6:16 AM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

The links don't really help me understand why it was so popular - is it unique, the first of its kind or are red sheds an American obsession?

skwt's DeLillo quote, though not obviously originally directed toward this shack, fits rather well as a potential explantion for this question too.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:30 AM on April 7, 2011

"is one of the most famous buildings in the world and instantly recognizable to any student of art or art history."

OK, I have a Master's in Art Ed, let's see..

OK, let's see...

Eiffel Tower? Check.
The Acropolis? Check.
The Chrysler Building? Check.
The Empire State Building? Check.
The Taj Mahal? Check.
The Hagia Sofia? Check.
The Pyramids at Giza? Check.
Macchu Picchu? Check.
Gaudi's Sagrada Familia? Check.
The Coliseum of Rome? Check.
The Meiji shrine? Check.
Angkor Wat? Check.

Some fishing shack in Massachusetts? Not so much.
Sounds like a local tourism board is getting a little high on its own fumes.
posted by metameat at 6:51 AM on April 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Well it's certainly one of the most famous buildings in my world.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 7:23 AM on April 7, 2011

Angkor Wat? Check.

Is that the Angkor Wat's famous then?

I'll get my coat
posted by KirkpatrickMac at 7:31 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I clicked through and realized that I recognized that little fishing shed not because it's "one of the most famous buildings in the world" (please) but because it's on the back of a deck of cards that's been at my family's summer cottage for about 60 years.
posted by usonian at 8:01 AM on April 7, 2011

As an Art History major from New England, I certainly knew of Motif No. 1. It's a bit surprising there are so many that are not familiar with it.

Also, apparently no one outside America ever exaggerates anything for effect, ever. Good to know.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:54 AM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

> As with others, I'm don't get the world famous or most painted status.

It seems to be mostly Rockport, Mass. organizations and tourist boards and such that are pushing the "most famous" or "most painted" angle, and hoping it catches on. The large majority of images that turn up in google image searches are not paintings but snapshot-ish photographs, leaving the impression they were done by tourists who have just been told "Be sure to get one of that red building, it's famous." It's a really nice laid-jettystone wharf, and not a bad building either but as a subject for painting they really need to quit maintaining it and let it get a lot more dilapidated and decayed. Atmospheric! Also relocate wharf, shack and all out of that prosperous-looking moorage full of fiberglass boats
posted by jfuller at 9:07 AM on April 7, 2011

I think I can understand why some might be questioning the assertion of "most famous building in the world," but at the same time, there's plenty of reason not to be so completely dismissive. For those who don't know, the arts communities of Cape Ann (Gloucester, Rockport, and Essex) are among the most significant centers of American art and, because of the prominence of the artists who lived, worked, and summered there, the towns had an outsized impact on the developments of American impressionism, early modernism, and modernism, and for that reason the area enjoys a place of note in world art history. Though you may not have heard of Motif No. 1 or even of the area, you have probably heard of many of the artists who created an unusually powerful arts scene in the area and were also participants in global artistic movements: Childe Hassam, Fitz Henry Lane, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, John Sloan, and Marsden Hartley, for example. They are just the tip of the iceberg. There are literally hundreds of professional artists who have worked in this region, and whether or not they are famous enough for you to have heard of them, their work is sold and collected on an art market that has steadily been one of the hottest in the world for going on 100 years now. Annual auctions of Cape Ann art today routinely bring revenues in the tens and hundreds of thousands for paintings connected with the area.

In such an environment, everything has been painted, sketched, drawn, printed, and photographed hundreds of times. Because of that, it's kind of a treat to visit there and wander around, seeing a familiar work of art in every streetscape, harbor view, dock, rocky ledge, meadow, and old fishing shack, and then to visit the very fine Cape Ann Museum to see the same views interpreted in hundreds of works by some of the greatest artists in the world. I have absolutely no doubt that any picturesque fishing shack in this active arts community has been replicated indefinite numbers of times, and that images of it are so widespread. For this reason I was enchanted to learn about Motif No. 1 from ericb. It's not an image I had consciously recognized as having seen before, and I had never heard it called "most famous," but the very fact that it's been used on everything from playing cards to postcards, ornaments, mousepads, calendars, paper models, and endless other tchochkes, speaks to its contribution to the iconic images of New England that the 20th century bequeathed to us.

This essay gives some excellent reasons for the scene's appeal to artists.

Also, note that the link in which "most famous" appears doesn't refer to it as the most famous building, but "one of the most famous" fishing shacks. I think you can at least give it that, unless you have some more famous fishing shacks to show. Anyway, I found it really interesting, and I'd like to think that if someone came in and posted a story like this about a famous fishing shack in Sweden depicted in thousands of painting and photographs that has become an enduring art subject, I'd still think it was interesting, and not complain that it isn't famous to me.
posted by Miko at 9:14 AM on April 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

Agree totally with what miko posted and hope I didn't come across as dismissive. I may say, though, that I had already gone image searching for Motif No. 1 and Homer, Hassam, Hopper, Eakins, John Marin, Thomas Moran and some others and come up blank. (Also H. R. Giger just for the Hell of it even though he isn't American, because you never know what you'll find until you look and I'm certain Giger's take on New England fishing-village-pastoral zombie apocalypse erotica would be worth seeing.)
posted by jfuller at 9:46 AM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I can't think of or find any paintings of No. 1 by the best known artists. But their scene has attracted so many hopeful and would-be and amateur and semi-pro and aspiring artists that that's why I'm not too surprised something from that area would be a most-painted building. I think it's possible that less-well known artists being quietly collected today might have painted this subject.
posted by Miko at 9:51 AM on April 7, 2011

" ... the arts communities of Cape Ann (Gloucester, Rockport, and Essex) are among the most significant centers of American art ...

As are others on Massachusetts' other cape, Cape Cod, especially Provincetown.
Provincetown History: The Art Colony, A Brief History.

Provincetown’s Beginnings as an Artists’ Colony.
posted by ericb at 12:28 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

OK, so I posted about Motif No. 1 on my Facebook, and learned that a painter friend of mine, Gordon Carlisle, did a great little commentary on Motif No. 1 by taking a paint by numbers scene of it, and adding a portrait of himself painting a "marketable scene," with other New England-y motifs tagged as well. Great stuff. It's titled "I Cover the Waterfront."
posted by Miko at 12:29 PM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

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