Gloucester Harbor, 1938
Stuart Davis, American, 1892–1964
Oil on canvas, mounted on panel
23 1/16 × 30 1/8 in. (58.6 × 76.5 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund

Habits of Mind

  • COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support

Constructing Shapes

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Find and name geometric shapes in the work of art

  • Use technology to create a landscape with geometric shapes







Connecting to the Work of Art

American painter Stuart Davis documented and celebrated the modernization of American cities in the 1920s and 1930s in his works of art. While other artists painted factories and machines, Davis turned his eye to the everyday sights of his urban surroundings, particularly the busy streets of New England. In Gloucester Harbor, Davis depicts a bustling waterfront scene that captures the rhythm and movements that make up life in a dynamic city.


Between 1915 and 1934, Davis spent his summers in the picturesque town of Gloucester on Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts. The area inspired a number of paintings, including this vibrant view of boats, piers, houses, and even smoke arranged in a complex composition. Combining an interest in Cubism with an insistence on depicting semi-recognizable objects, Davis searched for abstract patterns in everyday scenes.  Like the Cubists, Davis reduced his objects to simplified geometric forms and then reassembled them to create a two-dimensional composition. Davis paints the entire scene in a series of flat planes of color. Flatness in a painting can be described as smooth areas with the absence of surface detail. Although he used overlapping shapes to suggest depth, the mountains and buildings in the background are as brightly colored and as precisely outlined as the objects in the foreground. The use of color to express rather than describe recalls the work of the Fauve artists, who used vivid colors and bold brushstrokes.


In this work, the artist was inspired by the pulse of people and machines in the harbor, which he related to the modern and fractured rhythms of jazz music. Gloucester Harbor is alive with energetic improvisation like the uniquely American sounds of jazz. He breaks apart this dockside scene of boats and water and translates it into a rhythmic pattern of geometric shapes and color. The water still ripples, but in flat yellow bars. Furthermore, little depth is included in the composition. Everything is flat—in fact, the right corner is even folded up as if the whole scene were a flag. But the pieces fit together into a jumbled, slightly crooked surprise—like the structure of jazz music.


Davis’ interest in jazz demonstrates his attraction to American culture and his resolve to celebrate American art—both musically and visually. He became determined to develop into a “modern” artist after visiting the Armory Show in 1913, the landmark event that marked the true beginning of modernism in the United States. It was, he recalled, “the greatest shock to me—the greatest single influence I have experienced.”


  • What do you notice about this painting? Look closely at the background, middle ground, and foreground.
  • Describe the shapes and objects in the composition. How does the artist reduce the objects to nearly abstract forms while still allowing them to be recognizable?
  • What objects and shapes give you clues as to what type of landscape this is?
  • Notice the lack of flowing, soft lines. What effect do the geometric forms and sharp points add to the work?
  • How does the artist produce a feeling of flatness in the work? How do the geometric shapes add to this sense of flatness?
  • How is rhythm depicted in the painting?
  • Describe how the artist has reduced the natural elements in the work into geometric rhythms. Explore how the waves have been transformed into a pattern.
  • What makes this painting different from more traditional landscape paintings? Discuss how the artist created depth within the work.
  • How is color used within the painting? How is the artist’s choice of colors expressive rather than descriptive? How would this work be different if it were painted in black and white?


  • How does the artist convey a bustling and energetic scene despite the fact that there are no figures included in the painting?
  • The artist was very influenced by the energy and improvisational nature of jazz music and sought to capture the feeling of jazz in his paintings. How does this painting convey this?
  • We typically associate seascapes with natural marine tones such as blues and greens, yet this work is composed of reds, yellows, and purples as well as bright blues and greens. How does the artist’s choice of bright colors add to the tone of the painting?
  • Consider the overlapping patterns and shapes that make up the composition. Would it be fair to say that the patterns and shapes clash at times? How do these mismatched compositional elements add to the lively atmosphere?
  • In this work, the artist attempted to capture the rhythm and movement of life in a dynamic city. Do you think he was successful? Explain your reasoning.

Connecting to the Classroom

  • What are we seeing? What details do you see? Based on those details, what do you think is happening in this scene?
  • The artist used simple colors and shapes. Do you think this artwork would be more interesting if it was painted more realistically? Does it need more details?


  • Use technology to create a document showcasing a place created from geometric shapes. Include overlapping to show depth, layering to show distance, and repetition to show rhythm.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.