SALEM, Mass. — Rarely do curators call upon marine biologists to help identify fine art. That is, however, what John Coffey, deputy director for art and curator of American and modern art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, did in 2010. He wanted to find out if three Childe Hassam works being gifted to the museum had been painted on Appledore Island, and, if so, where? Little did he realize, this seemingly simple question would lead to a four-year field study, culminating in new insights about Hassam and his work.
American Impressionist Childe Hassam (1859–1939) is famously known for scenes of patriotic, flag-draped New York City streets and romantic women in filmy gowns lounging on porches and sun-drenched beaches. Lesser known are his 300 works painted on a windswept granite rock called Appledore Island, off the coast of Maine. There, his friend and poet Celia Thaxter ran the first major American offshore resort and artist colony, Appledore House. Luminaries of the day arrived by steamboat: John Greenleaf Whittier, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horace Greeley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Ward Beecher, Sarah Orne Jewett, William Morris Hunt, J. Appleton Brown. They feasted in the dining hall and socialized in Thaxter’s sumptuous parlor, which featured artwork hanging salon style.
For nearly 30 summers, Hassam painted there. The first decade, he concentrated on flowers, charming views, and sunsets. The last two decades, after Thaxter’s death in 1894, he ventured out to the northeast quadrant of the island — to the harsher, more wind- and sea-battered coast, where he painted rocks.
American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals, on view now at the Peabody Essex Museum, gathers and studies Hassam’s works from Appledore, revealing another side of one of America’s most famous painters. This is the second and last stop for the exhibition, which began at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Among the 40 oil and watercolor paintings it presents are some of Hassam’s finest.
Work on the exhibit began six years ago, when Coffey began researching those three Hassam paintings supposedly made in 1890, 1905, and 1907 on Appledore. He sent an email to Shoals Marine Laboratory (SML) — the sole tenant on the island today — with photos of the paintings. Could anyone identify the locations?
Hal Weeks, who spent most of his time studying three-spined stickleback fish as the assistant director for SML’s island and coastal programs at the time, emailed back. Coincidentally, he was traveling to Raleigh on business soon. Could he drop by the museum? He had something he wanted to show Coffey.
The curator remembers the marine biologist handing him a three-ringed binder. In it were photocopies of Hassam’s paintings next to current photos of their respective island spots, with GPS coordinates. “A classic scientist,” Coffey says. “It sang to my soul.”
“It was like a puzzle,” Weeks says about his curiosity regarding Hassam. He had actually been inspired to track down the artist’s views long before Coffey’s query, when he found David Park Curry’s 1990 book Childe Hassam: An Island Garden Revisited. To his surprise, finding these locations was far easier than he’d expected. Hassam had depicted the rocks and coves so realistically, Weeks could identify them more than a century later.
This amazed Coffey, too, when he visited the island. He and Weeks hiked across the boulders, pinpointing even the spots where Hassam had sat.
“Sometimes it was finding the only dry rock where Hassam could have put his butt,” says Coffey. “You could see how he did it. There is this one picture, called ‘Isles of Shoals’  with the ledge and the surf coming in. Hassam had to have gotten down right into the tidal area.” This would mean he had only a few hours to paint — a challenge for certain.
To verify each spot, Weeks and Coffey held up photocopies of Hassam’s paintings on location. When they got it right, the artistic images lined up nearly perfectly with the scenes today.
This begs a question that’s central to the exhibition (and referred to slightly ironically in the title): Was Hassam an Impressionist or a realist? In his time, he was designated the former, a label he rejected. And the current show seems to suggest otherwise.
“He is adapting some of the painting techniques he saw in Paris, but he adapts them in a way that communicates,” says Coffey. “He doesn’t just give an impression. He is analyzing the ledges and trying to understand the geology there — the various strata of rock and the color, and how it folds and how it is broken by time. He is trying to get at the full reality of that rock.”
A team of geologists specializing in the Isles of Shoals, of which Appledore is a part, led Coffey and Austen Barron Bailly, the exhibition’s co-curator, on a tour. They pointed out scratches in the rocks caused by retreating glaciers and unusual geological formations, such as trap dikes (deep clefts in the rock caused by the erosion of softer stone).
“Looking at the island through the geologists’ eyes gave us a clear idea what Hassam was doing,” says Coffey. “Likely Hassam wasn’t interested so much in the science of the rocks, and he may or may not have noticed the glacier scratching or understood why the trap dikes had been formed. However, he was passionate about capturing what was in front of him, so he had to analyze those rocks with the precision of a geologist.”
The artist chose colors with care and adapted his brushstrokes to indicate a change in the texture or direction of a given rock. “Compare that to some of the other artists who love rocks, such as Monet in his Normandy pictures,” says Coffey. “Monet couldn’t care less about that stuff. Hassam wasn’t just making a quick impression of the rocks. He was spending a lot of time analyzing what was in front of him.”
In fact, Hassam was probably more influenced by James McNeill Whistler than Claude Monet, says Kathleen M. Burnside, who has spent more than a decade researching the artist for a catalogue raisonné. “Hassam embraced impressionism, but also naturalism, tonalism, and aestheticism,“ she writes in the exhibition catalogue. The field study enabled her and the curators to look much more closely at Hassam’s Appledore paintings. She concluded that he painted less with the “eye of Monet” and more with Whistler’s aesthetics and passion for finding an emphatic link between art and nature.
“Sunset at Sea” (1911) is the largest and least Monet-like painting in the show, says Bailly. Hassam painted this sunset in horizontal bands made up of dabs of the least expected sunset colors: mustard, ochre, rust, pea soup.
“These colors are individually pretty icky,” says Coffey. “But when you stand back, it goes together so brilliantly. Hassam understood colors better than anyone in his generation.”
In contrast, “Sylph’s Rock, Appledore” (1907) is the most Monet-like. The brushstrokes are quick, with Hassam anticipating the returning tide. Even in his rush, however, he captures the patterns in the granite, the rock’s warping and flaking, and the growth of algae along the bottom. He’s true to details, but compresses the stone and drops out the foreground so the scene appears more monumental than in real life.
“All the features of Appledore are fairly miniature, but Hassam can make you think you’re at Big Sur,” says Coffey. “He is doing what a lot of artists do: he’s manipulating the point of view. That’s why he goes down into the tidal area. He looks up at an angle that’s only 15 feet high and makes it look like 60 feet.”
Even though the island may have been crowded with tourists at the time, there’s barely a person in Hassam’s Appledore paintings. Without the human figure for scale, the imagination allows the rocks and ledges to be much grander.
So, realist or Impressionist? The curators of the exhibit don’t offer a solid conclusion either way. Most important is their portrayal of Hassam as an artist who marched to his own drummer, shunning traditional labeling. “Hassam set out to find his own Appledore,” says Coffey, “and that’s exactly what he did.”
American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals continues at the Peabody Essex Museum (East India Square, 161 Essex Street, Salem, MA) through November 6.