The Wall Street Journal  |  August 16, 2016

‘American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals’ Review

By Lance Esplund

Six miles off the Atlantic coastline, where New Hampshire abuts Maine, is the archipelago known as the Isles of Shoals. The largest of its nine landmasses is Maine’s Appledore Island—95 weather-beaten acres of rocky coves, tidal pools and knobby shrubbery, all anchored by nature-cleaved mounds of white-and-gray granite. From 1848 to 1914, its western shores were the site of Appledore House, a grand, rambling hotel owned and operated by the family of the poet, artist and naturalist Celia Thaxter (1835-1894).

Thaxter, Appledore’s resident cultural luminary, lived in an adjacent cottage. Vacationers craned to spy, through Thaxter’s vine-cloaked, wraparound porch, the celebrities at her summer soirées, including writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emersonand painters William Morris Hunt and Frederick Childe Hassam.

But like the artists who frequented Appledore, resort guests were probably more transfixed by the views from their own porches: surf driving against rocky shores; active, New England skies; the surrounding smaller islands and distant, hazy mainland horizon; glorious sunsets.

These sweeping vistas entranced Hassam (1859-1935), who nearly every summer visited and painted Appledore between 1886 and 1916. And those pictures are the subject of “American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals,” a handsome exhibition of more than 40 marine oils and watercolors at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum. Curated at PEM by Austen Barron Bailly, the museum’s curator of American art, the show was co-organized with the North Carolina Museum of Art in cooperation with the Shoals Marine Laboratory.

Hassam, who lived periodically in Paris, where he absorbed something of French Impressionism, had a knack for knowing what American audiences wanted: picturesque scenes depicting classical nudes, or gentry, or children among this country’s gardens, streets, parks and interiors; and World War I-period paintings of festive parades along flag-lined streets. These pictures beam with optimism and patriotism, tempered by puritanical restraint. But they often feel predetermined—if not mechanical—verging on sentimental.

Thaxter first invited Hassam to Appledore, where he produced 250 to 300 seascapes (roughly 10% of his lifetime output). He also illustrated one of her books, “An Island Garden, With Pictures and Illuminations by Childe Hassam” (1894), which is on view at PEM. Hassam’s lovely, candid illustrations of Thaxter’s garden—which has since been meticulously re-created in its exact location on Appledore—are airy and ebullient. The illustrations have no pretensions toward European art. They and his paintings reveal that Hassam, who is often cited as America’s foremost Impressionist painter, is actually more of a straightforward realist who adopted (not always comfortably) a French Impressionist hand. Hassam’s twinkling, evanescent touch, applied here to Maine’s severe, craggy shoreline often feels at odds, lost in translation—as if an American black Lab were masquerading as a French poodle. “The Little Pond, Appledore” (1890) unnaturally flits between rugged, coastal New England and idyllic French countryside.

Still, Hassam’s paintings of Appledore get at something truly felt and deeper, perhaps even darker, than the rest of his oeuvre. Hassam, who worked en-plein-air, generally finished his paintings in the studio. The Appledore pictures suggest that even indoors the brisk ocean spray and sandy, salt air stayed with him. And “American Impressionist,” the most flattering presentation of Hassam I’ve seen, is a moving portrait of place.

Everything here is easel-scale. And many of the larger paintings—usually because of one small misstep—don’t completely add up. “Sunset at Sea” (1911), a beautiful painting comprising a band of peachy-violet sky atop a glittering yellow and turquoise band of sea, could almost pass for a Mark Rothko—if not for its tiny black schooner, plopped distractingly onto the horizon. Elsewhere, as in “Isles of Shoals” (1907), conventional Impressionist daubs and lines sit on the surface without really activating, moving and creating forms; and white paint (which Hassam too often employs for light) tends to constipate his color. But when Hassam responds to and interprets nature—letting the picture, not the island, drive the composition—description gives way to experience, and his expressive pictures convey the life and dynamism of Appledore itself.

Thaxter’s garden flowers dance in Hassam’s ecstatic “Poppies” (c. 1890). The beautiful nocturne “Moonlight” (1892) converts darkened blue sky into choppy sea. In “The Laurel in the Ledges, Appledore” (1905), he varies the weight, direction and scale of brushstrokes, as clouds rush down toward coastline. A grouping of energetic and expressionistic watercolors from 1912 feels emotionally charged. And in “The South Gorge, Appledore, Isles of Shoals” (1912), it’s as if Hassam’s eye and brush are riding the wild surf.

This show’s masterpieces, however, are the six small ocean views Hassam painted, on the backs of cigar-box lids, from porches at sunset. These gorgeous, light-filled one-shots, each completely unique in touch, speed and spirit, are as colorful, fluid and captivating as Appledore’s water, shores and light.

Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.

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