A curatorial team dives into an island’s influence on American Impressionist Childe Hassam
by J. Michael Welton
Childe Hassam was more than America’s foremost Impressionist painter. He was a global force, a peripatetic artist who wandered the world to paint Paris, New York, and the West Coast. But he found his muse on the humble and rustic Appledore Island, among the Isles of Shoals off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. Invited there in the early 1880s by poet and author Celia Thaxter, Hassam returned to paint the island during 24 summers over the next 30 years.
Its light, water, and rugged geological features appealed to him immensely, inspiring as many as 300 pastels, watercolors, and oil paintings – or 10 percent of his entire lifetime’s work.
The finest of these works have been assembled by the North Carolina Museum of Art, with help from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. and New York art historian Kathleen Burnside, for an exhibit on display through June 19. It’s called American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals.
Four years in the making, the show got its initial start when John Coffey, NCMA’s deputy director of art, suggested adding three of Hassam’s Appledore paintings to the Goodnight Collection of American Art at the museum. In 2000, the first, Isles of Shoals (1907), was acquired from a New York gallery, followed by The Laurel in the Ledges, Appledore (1905) in 2007, and Morning, Isles of Shoals (1890) in 2010.
Following in Hassam’s Footsteps
The acquisition of the paintings over a decade’s time piqued Coffey’s curiosity about the island’s influence on the artist. He sent an email inquiry to the Shoals Marine Laboratory, asking about locations where the three works might have been painted.
His request was directed to Hal Weeks, who was then the Lab’s director. Weeks “has a sort of hobby of locating Hassam painting sites,” Coffey says, “He knows Appledore Island like the back of his hand.” Weeks invited Coffey to the island four years ago, and it made an impression. “I was blown away,” Coffey says.
Coffey ended up touring the island six times, starting in 2011. He first visited sites where Weeks pointed out how faithful Hassam had been to the the geology and the personality of Appledore. “He was painting a mosaic portrait of this one very small island,” Coffey says. “It’s constantly changing – it’s fascinating – even though it’s small, it’s broken up geologically.”
On their forays into the wild, Weeks carried a notebook of paintings and locations to match, taking Coffey from one corner of the island to another in search of the places where Hassam painted. “I dragged this guy’s butt all over hell’s half-acre on this island,” Weeks says. “He’s a real trouper – we’d schlep around, then stumble and fall – but he did that and kept on going.”
The location for one particular painting was extremely difficult to get to; the pair had to carry a ladder, and get their feet wet, but the indefatigable Coffey was up for it all. “He was a lot of fun,” Weeks says. “He has an eye for what Hassam portrayed in his paintings – and the geology – much more so than I did.”
Before long, Coffey was taking Austen Barron Bailly, the George Putnam Curator of American Art at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, along with him. She wanted to understand the way Hassam pushed his Impressionist style and techniques, and how he took license.
“In some instances he was looking right at the site of a rock face in a watercolor,” she says. “Geologists today can tell what he was painting and what he was seeing and how he was turning up the volume of the color in those rocks – or manipulating the foreground to make it appear more monumental.”
Eventually, Coffey and Bailly brought along the education staffs from NCMA and PEM to join them, along with a professional photographer, videographer, and sound recorder, as well as Coffey’s former curatorial assistant. Together, they experienced an unforgettable exploration of the artist’s intent.
Bailly, who travelled to Appledore in 2013, 2014, and 2015, took notes of what the artist had painted there a century ago. “You see the island palette – the colors that became part of his artistic DNA,” she says. “I’ve seen it in all different weathers – the first time, it was socked in and cool, but last summer it was really hot – you felt the intensity of the sun beating down and the lack of shade. The gulls were everywhere – there was the incessant sound of seagull calls.”
An Artist’s Retreat and Respite
On their tours of the island, Weeks, Coffey, Bailly, and the rest carried yardsticks to fend off aggressive gulls protecting their nests. But when Hassam was painting there, they weren’t much of a problem at all. Appledore then was an artists’ retreat with a large hotel and cottages built by Celia Thaxter’s father. The hotel could house 300, and attracted wealthy society figures and literati from New England, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Hotel owners, sensitive to gulls harassing their well-heeled guests, kept their population down – probably with shotguns.
Celia, 30 years Hassam’s senior, kept her own cottage and garden, where she raised flowers – poppies, pansies, pinks, and rose campions among them – for use by the hotel. These blooms would all become some of the first subjects of the artist’s work on the island. He painted seascapes from her porch, and watercolors and oils of the flowers she grew. “In the early 1890s, Hassam appears to have seen Appledore through Celia’s eyes,” Coffey says.
His paintings illustrated her book, An Island Garden, published just before her death. “You can almost split up his work between the time Celia died in 1894 and his work in the 1890s – particularly oils and watercolors in the book,” says art historian Burnside, who’s been cataloging Hassam’s work for the past 30 years. “The watercolors might be among the finest work of his career – they’re a scrumptious, evocative, and multilayered Impressionism that is spectacular.”
A pallbearer at Celia’s funeral, Hassam stayed away from Appledore for five years after her death. But when he did come back, he explored areas farther away from Celia’s cottage, and his work took on a new kind of fervor. “He turned his proverbial back on her garden and spent more time on things more nature-oriented on the north side of the island, rather than her house and garden,” Burnside says.
An Elegy to Celia?
Hassam did, however, return to one particular site – a spot where he’d painted a sunrise called Morning, Isles of Shoals in 1890. Ethereal and other-worldly, with a bright sun hovering over the horizon in a pink sky, illuminating ocean and rocks in the foreground, it’s a masterpiece from his early years with Celia. This time – in 1899 – he painted the same rocks, the same ocean, and the same horizon, but with a different orb – the moon – lightly floating in the nighttime sky. Moonrise, Isles of Shoals joined the earlier seascape as the only known pair that Hassam would ever paint.
But why? Is there some kind of special meaning to them? Elegy may be the answer, though Coffey says he’s not quite ready to go that far definitively in print.
“One dates from 1890, the year of Hassam’s first extended stay on the island,” he says. “The other dates from 1899, the year Hassam returns to Appledore after a long sojourn in France. In between is Celia’s death. So, I think it is possible to interpret this pair with its transit from radiant sunrise to wan moonlight as perhaps a metaphor for the loss of his friend.”
It is that unusual combination of scholarship and feeling that Coffey, Bailly, and Burnside have brought to the exhibition, delivering new meaning to the phrase “due diligence.” The show is a tour de force of the artist’s work in a particular place and time, one that guides the viewer from geological explorations of rock formations to palette-knife sunsets and abstracted watercolors that slash through geology and the sea – a travelogue of the island, seen through the eyes of one of America’s most accomplished artists.