[dropcap]T[/dropcap]oday the highlight of Appledore Island, six miles off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is sun- and wind-powered Shoals Marine Research Laboratory, jointly run by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire. The painter Childe Hassam would barely recognize the island, a square mile of granite and basaltlike blocks overgrown by scrub, whose manmade environment has changed completely since the 1800s.
Then, Appledore boasted a bustling hotel, where Hassam’s friend, the poet Celia Thaxter, hosted an artists’ colony. Hassam would appreciate the laboratory, however; he used the rocky outcropping as a lab on which to experiment with color and atmosphere. Hassam spent more than 20 summers on Appledore. His paintings of the island—one of several known collectively as the Isles of Shoals—make up a tenth of his 3,000-work oeuvre. A new traveling exhibition, American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals, assembles 42 of them.
“Swept by every wind that blows and beaten by the bitter brine of unknown ages, well may the isle of Shoals be barren, bleak, and bare,” wrote Thaxter, a devoted gardener and bohemian spirit who often decorated her forehead with a silver crescent. “But the very wildness and desolation reveal a strange beauty.” The poet, 24 years Hassam’s senior, felt a relentless pull to the island. She had grown up on a nearby island, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, and returned to Appledore, where her father had built a resort hotel, when her marriage was failing. The low-lying, scoured landscape and its unending variety of shapes, textures, and colors exerted the same tug on Hassam.
Often described as an American Impressionist, the artist resisted that label. According to art historian Kathleen Burnside, Hassam is foremost a colorist, and the Isles of Shoals paintings—without figures or narrative—showcase that interest. “What colors do you see?” he would ask visitors to Appledore.
Born in 1859 to a prominent Boston family, Hassam took up painting as a boy and would become well known for urban streetscapes.
Hassam and Thaxter met around 1881, probably in Boston, and soon an enigmatic crescent began prefacing Hassam’s signature on paintings—perhaps a homage to Thaxter, who had urged the young artist, then going by his first name, Frederick, to use his middle name, Childe. Hassam had been painting on Appledore for several summers when, in August 1894, Thaxter, 58, died suddenly. Hassam and painter J. Appleton Brown helped bury her, heaping her coffin with flowers from her beloved, luxuriant garden. After Thaxter’s death, Hassam stayed away from Appledore for five years, resuming his pilgrimages in 1899.
The traveling show is the brainchild of John Coffey, a curator of American art at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. A Hassam enthusiast, Coffey wanted to know exactly where on Appledore Hassam had painted. “A great artist painting on a small rock for a very long time was a too good an idea for an exhibition,” Coffey adds. He connected with scientist Hal Weeks, then with Shoals lab. Weeks knew of Hassam’s island paintings, and had personally pinpointed many of those vistas. He invited Coffey to the island and, Coffey says, “I was hooked.”
Coffey returned for four summers, matching sites to paintings. However, one remained elusive. Coffey posted a print of the painting in the lab’s dining hall, offering a $50 reward to anyone who could identify it.
In 2014, Eric Braconier, a student at the lab on Appledore, sent a cellphone image, nailing the final unidentified location. “It was a site we knew, but it looked different because of the changes in the tide,” Coffey adds. The traveling exhibit compares contemporary photographs of locations with Hassam’s interpretations.
Childe Hassam’s Isles of Shoals paintings have not been organized into a single exhibit in more than
a century. The works and photos of their origins will be on view at the Peabody Essex Museum (www.pem.org) in Salem, Massachusetts, July 16 to November 6, 2016. ✯
This story was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of American History magazine. Subscribe here.