Update: I realized that I have another copy of this same card. It bears a dated postmark of July 21, 1913. So I am revising my estimate of the photograph’s date back a couple years, to 1912 (at the latest).
This scene of a still and quiet harbor, showing Motif No. 1, is not postmarked or dated. No publisher is listed, but the back of the card bears the imprint, “The Royal Blue Card.” I’ve found only a few other cards with this imprint, most of which were published by a Boston company, Putnam Art Co. Of those, the only ones with postmarks were dated from 1915 to 1918. That being the best evidence I have, I’m estimating this picture to be from about 1915.
If so, then that famous fishing shack in the center of the photo would not yet have been dubbed Motif No. 1. I say that, even though I cannot find any reference to the year in which it did first take that name.
Almost every source gives the same story for how it got that name. You can find the story recited on RockportUSA.com, which attributes it to the 1965 book by artist John Cooley, Rockport Sketch Book. A quick Google search will bring up several other references that tell the same story.
They all attribute it to artist Lester Hornby, who taught in Paris in the winter and in Rockport in the summer. Hornby’s French students drew certain standard subjects, or motifs. In a similar way, many of his Rockport students were drawn to sketch the old shed in the harbor. Perhaps exasperated when one too many students chose the same subject to sketch, he reportedly exclaimed, “What-Motif No 1 again!”
A different version of the naming is told by Eleanor C. Parsons in her 1998 book, Rockport: The Making of a Tourist Treasure. She attributes the name to the artist who actually lived in the shack for a period of time, John Buckley, although she says he was inspired by having heard Hornby discuss motifs in Paris. Here is her version:
More and more visitors began to reconstruct the primitive beauty on their canvasses until, one day, an artist who had actually taken up residence in the building, along with the fishing gear, realized his shelter had become the most popular subject of all for his fellow artists to paint. Repeating, half in jest, the words brought from France by his contemporary artist, Lester Hornby, the tenant-owner uttered the name that was to remain for posterity: “It’s the Number One Motif!”
One thing for certain: The shack in this postcard is not the shack we see today. The original shack was destroyed in the blizzard of 1978 and a replica was built to replace it.