The BLOG: Lifestyle

Hassam exhibit at Peabody Essex leaves lasting impression

Now through Nov. 6, let the Peabody Essex Museum make an impression on you! Co-organized with the North Carolina Museum of Art in cooperation with the Shoals Marine Laboratory of Maine, the PEM presents the Childe Hassam exhibition designed to immerse guests in a multi-sensory, multi-disciplinary experience of more than 40 of the prolific American Impressionist’s finest works.

Entering the second floor gallery of the Museum, visitors are wrapped in time and place by a floor-to-ceiling black and white panorama of life in the summer colony of Appledore. With Star Island, Appledore is known as a part of the Isle of Shoals. Appledore, the largest island in the Atlantic’s archipelago, is where Boston-born, Lowell Institute-trained Hassam spent most summers between 1886-1916. There he inhaled the salt air and basked in the light of coastal New England.

As Hassam first experienced the idyllic shoal he was drawn to paint the garden of his greatest champion; gardener, poet, painter and local celebrity Celia Thaxter. Her 1894 book, An Island Garden, was illustrated by Hassam. For him her garden stage overlooking Babb’s Rock commingled sumptuous vegetation and romantic sea air. Today’s archaeologists studying the logistics of Hassam’s impressionistic masterworks have articulated the margins of Thaxter’s vintage garden. Using heirloom seeds in eggshells and a passive rain water system, students from the University of New Hampshire working in the Shoals Marine Lab have restored the garden to its original charms.

In the late 1800s through the turn of the century, visitors of the Isles of Shoals enjoyed the halcyon summer enclave rubbing elbows on a 500-foot piazza at the grand Appledore House. At that time it was a resort of artists, musicians, sail boaters, Salon thinkers, and tennis players. The clustered colonists gazed toward granite clefts, rolling lawns and tidal pools onto the deep blue wilds of the Atlantic Ocean. Hassan’s brush strokes captured impressions of those color-filled vistas but never the colorful visitors.

American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isle of Shoals (Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isle of Shoals (Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

So captivated by the ever-changing, never-changing coast was Hassam, over 30 years he painted the Isle in every imaginable permutation. With a nod to Whistler, his mastery of Impressionism rivals European artists somehow transcending their vision, mixing pragmatic New England shards with vapor and light. The work of this relative of Nathaniel Hawthorne, as presented by the Peabody Essex Museum, is an ethereal opus of earth, sea and sky. The PEM says his en plain air paintings “created a body of work that remains a pinnacle of American Impressionism.”

Enhancing interpretations of the virtuoso’s work, acoustic sounds of crashing waves and calling birds serenade Museum guests as they wander galleries surrounded by resplendent paintings and photographs of the Isles. The presentation is new with a familiarity New Englanders will recognize.

The photographic compliment to the watercolor and oil paintings of the exhibit include a black-and-white thesis of Appledore by contemporary artist Alex de Steiguer. Like Hassam, de Steiger says she experiences the Shoals raw, organic, monumentality by revisiting and studying aspects of Appledore over an extended period of time. Unlike Hassam’s gregarious summer studies, de Steiger’s time is somewhat cloistered on the Shoals, spending the past 19 years as the winter caretaker of the Star Island Family Conference and Retreat Center.

Dr. Jennifer Seavey, of Shoals Marine Laboratory and an undergraduate teaching center for Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire, sees Appledore as a place where science and art meet. Standing alongside Moonlight, her favorite painting in the exhibit, the doctor explains an evolution of the eco-system captured in this shimmering image of oil on canvas.

As a marine scientist working on the Island, she sees the configuration of the rocks Hassam painted, assessing the tide line, the full moon and cloud formation; she says she can tell by the sea and sky, this was a time of calm before a storm. Dr. Seavey records with her students of the Marine Lab changes in the bird and fish populations on and around the Isle of Shoals. In the hundred years since Hassam painted the calm of Moonlight, significant declines in the fish and bird populations have been documented. Dr. Seavey attributes those population declines to the storm of global warming.

Extending the visual postcard that is this exhibit, capturing the special intercourse of uniquely New England elements, the PEM includes a set of gallery rocking chairs from which to reflect on the vistas of this tour de force presentation. There’s also a writing table and a collection of note cards to send to anyone who may be interested in contemplating the ever-changing, never-changing coastal images of Childe Hassam’s Isle of Shoals.

American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. now through Nov. 6.

For details visit or call 978-745-9500 or toll free at 866-745-1876; hearing impaired 978-749-3649.

Contact Diane Kilgore at [email protected].