Small, rocky, and isolated, the Isles of Shoals lie ten miles off the Maine and New Hampshire coasts in the Atlantic Ocean. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the once deserted islands were developed into a thriving summer vacation scene. The Shoals were also home to noted poet and cultural doyenne Celia Laighton Thaxter whose family owned the grand Appledore Hotel on the eponymous island. Among the throngs of visitors were many of New England's elite intellectuals and artists such as Arthur Quarterly, J. Appleton Brown, and Ross Turner who attended Thaxter's informal, lively salon. Childe Hassam met Thaxter around 1880 and a few years later he substituted for Turner as the poet's watercolor teacher. Hassam soon began summering at the Isles, and Appledore remained the artist's favorite retreat for the next thirty years. A close friendship developed between artist and poet, with Hassam eventually illustrating one of Thaxter's books entitled An Island Garden, published the year of her death in 1894. Towards the end of his life, Hassam reminisced about his experience on the island: "[Thaxter] had the most interesting people with her in the summer time. William Hunt went there.... He spent all his time in her little salon, which was a big room in the Thaxter cottage.... The world is small and the arts and letters of the artist's quarters is a world in itself....[Thaxter] was a woman of the finest culture. Her famous garden was there....I have painted many times the Island Garden" (quoted in Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, 2004,
Thaxter crafted her lush cottage garden in defiance of the island's granite terrain. The hundreds of delicate flowers that filled the garden and covered the seaside slopes were casually arranged, lacking any formal patterning. David Park Curry notes that Thaxter's informal style and use of old fashioned flowers was inspired by "America's reawakened interest in things colonial, which followed the country's Centennial in Philadelphia" and a "nostalgia" for a time before the industrial age (Childe Hassam: An Island Garden Revisited, 1990, p. 70). One visitor described it as "unlike any other garden, although more beautiful ... for it was planted all helter-skelter, just bursts of color here and there, --and what color!" (quoted in Childe Hassam: An Island Garden Revisited, 1990, p. 71). Thaxter relied on her garden as a source for the elaborate floral arrangements she created to adorn her parlor. Hassam's 1892 watercolor The Altar and Shrine (Private Collection) pictures Thaxter's intimate, well-decorated parlor, a nineteenth century model of female hospitality. Among the numerous images Hassam produced while at the Isles of Shoals, his views of Thaxter's garden emerged as an important leitmotiv from 1889 to 1894.
In his 1893 watercolor Flower Garden, Isles of Shoals, Hassam marshals the flecked, rapid brushwork and vibrant chromatism of Impressionism. He renders the red poppies with a delicate pink wash accented with bright reds, the white flowers with the lightest touch of pigment; and leaves other small areas of paper entirely devoid of color. The interplay between the variegated dashes of bright color and white spaces creates a lively surface that marks many of Hassam's finest Appledore scenes. The red and white poppies that fill the lower half of the image float above the tangle of verdant foliage. Above, spires of larkspur extend skyward; their lavender-blue flowers echoing the hues in the sea and sky beyond. Movement is further suggested by the conflated sense of space and the slanting, windswept angle of the flowers and grasses. The verticality of the larkspur serves to flatten the space, denying the viewer any true perception of the distance between the sea and the garden. Hassam is known to have edited his garden scenes so there was no evidence of human presence. Though Thaxter intended for her garden to appear untamed and rambling, her plants were delicately cultivated. No sign of Thaxter's protective measures appears in these garden views. He eliminates the wire cages, fishing nets, canvas sheets, ropes, and wooden partitions. Only the slightest suggestion of a fence exists in the central, left side of the watercolor. With his emphasis on aesthetic effects rather than descriptive specificity, Hassam transforms a little patch of Thaxter's garden into a celebration of nature.
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