For as long as there have been artists, there have been muses. For Childe Hassam, foremost American Impressionist (and Dorchester native), the Isles of Shoals—located roughly six miles off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine—were his.
Nearly every summer for 30 years, Hassam visited Appledore Island, which was then a booming vacation destination for the well-bred and elite. Poet Celia Thaxter, dear friend (and major supporter) of Hassam, called the island home. If Hassam was having a love affair with Appledore Island, then Thaxter was their matchmaker.
Thaxter’s parents owned the Appledore House hotel, a grand resort that served as the island’s epicenter for those vacationing. Thaxter lived nearby, where she would often hold court with some of the foremost artists and writers of the time, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Hassam.
In American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals, now on view through Nov 6 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 39 of these works hang together in breathtaking harmony. The exhibition is co-organized by the North Carolina Museum of Art, where it was shown earlier this year.
The PEM collaborated with marine biologists at the Shoals Marine Laboratory (which is actually on Appledore Island) to identify the exact locations of Hassam’s paintings. The project took roughly four years, and not only were locations identified, but in some cases, time of year. “This has dramatically impacted how we understand how he was painting,” said Austen Barron Bailly, curator of American Art at PEM and co-curator of this exhibition. This adds a fascinating layer to the show, one that is not typical of most art exhibitions.
From the moment you step through the gallery doors, the sound of waves crashing and seagulls screaming fills the air, transporting you instantly. Around the corner, a front porch with rocking chairs is set up, inviting guests to sit down and spend some time. It is a true oasis that feels like equal parts vacation and art history lesson.
Bailly hopes that the exhibition will have a “lasting impact [on visitors] because the experience is more holistic. We wanted to bring some of the island to the viewers,” she said. “We want people to have a real experience. We wanted the show to breathe.”
Of the 39 works on display, 17 are on loan from private collections, making this a rare treat, indeed. (A stunning catalogue has been published for the occasion, which is well worth a look.) Still, there is a redundancy to some of the paintings, and I wonder if their cumulative effect mightn’t have been greater if there had been fewer of them.
Moonlight (1892), showing a full moon in a sky of crocheted-like clouds, shining down on the night sea, is bewitching; Sunset at Sea (1911) really highlights Hassan’s mastery of color and knack for capturing not only a place, but a single moment; The West Wind (1904), the painting that I probably spent the longest gazing at, is almost entirely of the blue sea, with small, gentle white crests. The sky occupies only the top two inches of the painting, with a barely-there horizon line separating sky and sea. It is unexpected and disarming.
Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals is a serene thrill that is well worth the trip to Salem. (For those relatively new to Boston: It’s a quick, stressless train ride from North Station.) On the third Thursday of every month, the Peabody Essex Museum holds after-hours parties, with small plates and a cash bar. (College students and Salem residents enter for free.) There’s more to Salem than witches, and this exhibition is a fine place to start.
AMERICAN IMPRESSIONIST: CHILDE HASSAM AND THE ISLES OF SHOALS. THROUGH 11.6 AT THE PEABODY ESSEX MUSEUM, EAST INDIA SQUARE, SALEM. PEM.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.