After More Than 25 Years, Paintings by Boston’s Own Impressionist, Childe Hassam, Can Be Seen Again (5 Stars)
by Claudia A. Fox Tree
American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals. Located in Dodge Gallery 2 at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) runs in Salem, MA from July 16, 2016 to November 6, 2016. See www.pem.org.
If you want to sit in an Adirondack chair on a wrap-around porch overlooking the ocean taking in a sunset, but can’t find the time, consider getting yourself over to the Peabody Essex Museum. It’s only a short 30-minute drive from Boston and has an unprecedented collection of 40 Appledore paintings by Childe Hassam.
Hassam, born in Dorchester in 1859, shared an ancestor with Nathaniel Hawthorne. His mother was a native of Maine and he spent his summers on the Isles of Shoals. This archipelago is located about 6 miles off the coast of New Hampshire/Maine, and includes Appledore and Star Islands. Hassam’s paintings preserve the island’s natural beauty in seascape after seascape from sunrise to sunset. I felt like I was taking a vacation through art. The cliffs reminded me of my summer trips to Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard. The scenery of ocean and rocks, accented by cumulonimbus clouds, giant jellyfish, and red poppies felt like any and every east coast oceanfront. This could have been where Anne of Green Gables lived or Captain Ahab set sail.
Looking at this artist’s work, one would never know that a grand hotel able to entertain 300 guests thrived in the background of his pristine settings, since Hassam never added people to his artwork. The idea of a summer retreat for families wanting to escape the city life is remnant of a bygone era. Though the hotel burned down in 1914, what Hassam caught on canvas lives on.
A special feature of this exhibit is that it is a collaboration of research between geologists, marine scientists, and curators. The marine scientists identified the locations of many of the artworks and a color photograph of the same view is on display. The geologists have “verified” that the basalt rock, erosion, and sedimentary layers were expertly captured by Hassam. Some of the clouds are so unusual that they identify the date a storm recorded in texts of the region. The scientific link into the creative imagination of Hassam gave me something else to look for and ponder.
Impressionist paintings give “impressions.” Small brush strokes of paint up close create an impressive landscape once you step back. If you don’t know exactly how far away to stand, just listen… A soundtrack of crickets or ocean, depending on what painting is being viewed, plays when standing exactly the correct distance to truly appreciate the impression of boulders or garden against seascape. Hassam holds his own in America, just as Monet and Van Gogh represent France and Amsterdam.
This collection is unique. 17 paintings were gathered from private collections and 23 from other museums. I felt privileged to see these oils and watercolors, some of which are rarely viewed in public. The exhibit flows through the gallery, winding to the right and ending with a “postcard station.” It’s a fabulous way to imagine the end of a stay at the beach, complete with a virtual island window. Sit, take a postcard, write a note, and drop it into the mailbox on the wall. No postage needed, the PEM will have it delivered.
Embedded in the exhibit are 12 contemporary photographs of Appledore by Alexandra de Steiguer, caretaker of the island and its only winter inhabitant. It takes a special kind of person to meet that sort of challenge! The black and white photos capture starkness and loneliness, but also movement and life on the water. Like Hassam, de Steiguer has decades of experience with Appledore and the landscape speaks to her, as it did to him.
I love visiting the PEM because there are so many terrific permanent exhibits and always a few new rotating ones. This time, while going to see the Hassam exhibit, I walked through Passed Intersections by Anila Quayyum which is there through October 16. It’s impressive – an immersive single room installation that projects a geometric array of light and shadow on all the walls and ceiling, making you feel like you are entering lace made of light. Or, you can check out Rodin: Transforming Sculpture, which is there until September 2.
The Peabody Essex Museum is at East India Square, 161 Essex Street, Salem, MA, at www.pem.org. Salem is easily accessed on the MBTA commuter rail.