Poppies, Isles of Shoals
In the Atlantic, about ten miles out from the harbor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, lie the Isles of Shoals, nine small, rocky and treeless islands. Surrounded by deep water with abundant fish, the Isles have been known to fishermen and voyagers for centuries. The first English settlements were in the early seventeenth century, with the most substantial community located on Hog Island, which was later renamed Appledore, after a village in Devonshire. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Isles supported a vigorous economy based on fishing and shipping, but in the post-Revolutionary period those activities steadily declined.1
The fortunes, and character, of the Isles changed dramatically after a hotel was built on Appledore in 1847 by Thomas Laighton and his Harvard-educated partner Levi Thaxter. Laighton had come to the Isles eight years earlier to serve as lighthouse keeper on White Island, bringing with him his family, including a four-year-old daughter, Celia.2 When she was sixteen Celia married Levi Thaxter and moved with him to the mainland. The marriage was not an especially harmonious one, and Celia deeply missed life on the islands and tried to spend as much time there as she could. She began to write poetry, publishing her first poem, "Landlocked," which expressed her longing for the Isles of Shoals, in 1871. The poem brought her immediate success and more verse and prose followed, including the book Among the Isles of Shoals, published in 1874.
Childe Hassam and Celia Thaxter met around 1880, probably in Boston, where Thaxter studied art. Hassam may have begun visiting the Isles of Shoals as early as 1884, and he is known to have painted in watercolor there in 1886. But virtually all of his images of the island fall into two distinct groups: those executed between 1890 and 1894 (the year of Thaxter's death) and those from 1899 to 1916, when he made numerous visits to the island. Some of the watercolors and oils from the first group depict the interior of Thaxter's cottage, but the majority are outdoor scenes set in her flower garden or nearby.
Hassam only rarely worked in pastel, preferring throughout his career to paint in watercolor or oil. But when he did use pastel, he showed himself to be a master of the medium. Of the several pastels known of Appledore subjects, Poppies, Isles of Shoals is the most freely executed. Leaving much of the paper blank, Hassam used quick strokes to suggest the poppies and other plants. In contrast, the blue of the sky is more thoroughly worked, which helps establish spatial divisions. The flowers seem to sway in a gentle breeze, vividly evoking for us the feel of being present in the garden. Yet Hassam's image is so delicately ethereal that we also sense the transience of the moment, as if all might vanish in the blink of an eye, changing immediate experience into treasured memory.
Curator of American and British paintings