National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS
American Impressionism and Realism

Poppies (Poppies, Isles of Shoals)
Childe Hassam, 1859 - 1935
1891, oil on canvas, 19 3/4 x 24 (50.2 x 61)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift (Partial and Promised) of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz, 1997.135.1

The oil Poppies (Poppies, Isles of Shoals) shows the view from Celia Thaxter's flower garden on the Isles of Shoals toward an outcropping called Babb's Rock. Although one could see ample signs of man's presence from Thaxter's garden, Hassam usually excluded them from his paintings. Here, only a sailboat passing in the distance hints that we are not in a pristine, wild environment. The composition is arranged with three distinct and equal bands of space. In each zone different colors predominate: green and red for the flowers; blue, purple, and white for the rocks and water; and pale blue for the sky. Hassam's brushwork is equally varied, ranging from lush red and white strokes defining the flowers to long drags of pigment to suggest the multihued surfaces of the rocks. At the bottom he left areas of canvas bare, adding yet another color and texture. For those accustomed to academic landscape painting, seeing one of Hassam's Isles of Shoals paintings was, as one reviewer wrote, "like taking off a pair of black spectacles that one has been compelled to wear out of doors, and letting the full glory of nature's sunlight color pour in upon the retina."1

Many of Hassam's contemporaries considered the works of Claude Monet to be his prime inspiration. Irritated by how frequently this comparison was made, Hassam tended to downplay Monet's influence and stressed his debt to other painters such as John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner. Subsequent historians have reasonably invoked other influences, including the writings of John Ruskin, the paintings of the English Pre-Raphaelites, the art and aesthetic theory of James McNeill Whistler, and the paintings of other American impressionists such as Robert Vonnoh, who was at the Académie Julian with Hassam in 1886.2 Still, whatever the mix of influences at work, and no matter how much he changed his handling of paint at various points in his career, Hassam's work was always strongly individual. Paintings such as Poppies (Poppies, Isles of Shoals) may have the bright colors and broken brushwork found in paintings by Monet, Camille Pissarro, and others from the late 1860s to the mid-1880s (generally considered the prime years of French impressionism), but beyond that there is little resemblance. Hassam did not use broken color to dissolve his subjects (as Monet often did in his works from 1880 onward), preferring instead a structural clarity and solidity of form that keeps objects intact and space clearly legible.

Paintings like Poppies (Poppies, Isles of Shoals), then, are perhaps best understood not as impressionist performances some twenty years out of date, but rather as allied to the revisions and reactions to impressionism being pursued by artists such as Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, and others at the same time.3

Franklin Kelly
Curator of American and British paintings

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Notes

1. From a review of Hassam's exhibition at the Doll and Richards Gallery, Boston, c. 1891; undated clipping, probably from the Boston Transcript, Childe Hassam Papers, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, as quoted in Ulrich Hiesinger, Childe Hassam: American Impressionist (Munich and New York, 1994), 86.

2. See David Park Curry, Childe Hassam: An Island Garden Revisited [exh. cat., Denver Art Museum] (Denver, New York, and London, 1990), for a discussion of Hassam's style.

3. Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience (New York, Washington, and London, 1969), 244, linked Mary Cassatt's works to the "Post-Impressionist attitudes of the late 1880s and 1890s." Two works by Hassam, Crystal Palace, Chicago (1893, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago) and an Appledore interior, The Room of Flowers (1894, private collection), were included in the rather diverse American section of the exhibition Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European and American Painting, 1880-1906 [exh. cat., National Gallery of Art] (Washington, 1980), 238. Wanda Corn and John Wilmerding, who selected the works and provided catalogue commentary, noted that Hassam occasionally "went beyond or even rejected traditional aspects of pure impressionism," but nevertheless stress his "American instincts for solid realism." Curry (1990, 84-101) relates Hassam's Isles of Shoals paintings to contemporary works by Monet.