American Impressionist

Come summer, as temperatures rise and my patience for enduring them wears thin, the cool blues of an impressionist seascape can almost refresh as effectively as a cooling sea breeze itself, if I’m desperate and imaginative enough.

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Childe Hassam The Laurel in the Ledges, Appledore 1905 Oil on canvas 25 × 30 in. (63.5 × 76.2 cm) North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Promised gift of Ann and Jim Goodnight

This summer, if you haven’t escaped to some upper New England seaside locale, you too can can wallow in those metonymic blues at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum where more than 40 of the American impressionist Childe Hassam’s greatest oil paintings and watercolors of the coves, inlets, ledges and expansive seascapes of his beloved Appledore Island, will be on view through Nov 16. [There’s also of course the undeniable cool of industrial air conditioning.]

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Childe Hassam 1859 – 1935, United States Poppies, Isles of Shoals, 1891 Oil on canvas overall: 50.2 x 61 cm (19 3/4 x 24 in.) framed: 73.5 x 83.8 x 6.7 cm (28 15/16 x 33 x 2 5/8 in.) Gift of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz 1997.135.1 Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

For thirty years, beginning in 1886, Hassam, the earliest American champion of the Impressionist movement, regularly visited Appledore, the largest island of the Isles of Shoals located off the coasts of southern New Hampshire and Maine.
There, year after year, inspired by the Atlantic breeze as well as the garden of poet and local celebrity Celia Thaxter, Hassam created painting after painting, often depicting the same locations, altering the perspective or framing, with the same commitment and imagination as Monet and his haystacks.

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Childe Hassam Sylph’s Rock, Appledore 1907 Oil on canvas 25 × 30 in. (63.5 × 76.2 cm) Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, Gift of Charlotte E.W. Buffington in memory of her husband, 1908.5 © Worcester Art Museum. Photograph by Frank E. Graham

For this exhibition, an innovative, interdisciplinary team of art historians, marine scientists, and geologists teamed up to interpret and map Hassam’s island as expressed in his paintings. I assume the team’s findings are useful to their individual scholarly communities. But, as a lay visitor, I’ll confess to not really understanding how all that mapping and naming enhances my understanding of American impressionism or the artful, imaginative experience I expect to have when visiting an exhibition of the same.
In the same way, while 12 contemporary black-and-white photographs of Appledore today by Alexandra de Steiguer offer a different perspective of the island at a different time in a different medium, their relevance to my experience seems secondary. I understand why they’re there, but they’re not why I’m there.

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Childe Hassam Sunset at Sea 1911 Oil on canvas 34 3/4 × 34 1/2 in. (99.3× 87.6 cm) Private collection, Courtesy of Brock & Co., Concord, Massachusetts Photography by Clements/Howcroft

My favorite section of the show was the last, where we see Hassam himself altering his perspective and medium. Late in his career, after a visit to Paris, Hassam returned to Appledore and sought out new locations to paint in watercolor rather than oil. I found these works to be more emotionally adventurous and aesthetically moodier than the earlier more stereotypically impressionist work.

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Childe Hassam The Cove 1912 Watercolor on paper 14 × 20 in. (36.5 × 51 cm) Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas, John W. and Mildred L. Graves Collection, 1986.15

They raise questions for me: what changed? Why? And whether those changes were carried into other parts of his life.
By extension I can’t help ask the follow-up questions: are there locations just adjacent to those I tend to return to that have the potential to radically alter my perspective and experience? Are there unused tools that extend my current skill-set and open up new possibilities and opportunities?
I’ll confess to not really knowing who Childe Hassam was before previewing this show. Nevertheless, I can imagine we’re going to enjoy a number of hot summer days together.

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American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals
through Nov 16, 2016
pem.org

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