In the early 1880s Frederick Childe Hassam met the poet Celia Laighton Thaxter in Boston. She had become well-known for hosting artists, writers, and musicians at her family’s summer resort hotel at Appledore, the largest of the islands that make up the nine rocky Isles of Shoals off coastal New Hampshire. In 1882, at Thaxter's suggestion, Hassam discarded his first name in favor of his more unusual, and presumably more marketable middle name. Hassam probably began visiting Thaxter at Appledore in the summer of 1883, when he was engaged as her watercolor instructor. After his return from Paris in 1889, he would become a regular annual visitor there and would build a house and painting studio on the island. Hassam often painted Thaxter’s famous gardens until about the time of her death in 1894, after which he turned increasingly to the island's rocky outcroppings and surrounding sea for his subject matter. He stopped visiting Appledore about 1916.
1901, the date of the Dumbarton Oaks pastel, seems to mark the beginning of Hassam’s intrigue with the cliffs and rocky coastline of Appledore, and he painted more than a half dozen canvases of the coastline that summer. (1) Hassam would continue to investigate the rocky outcroppings of Appledore many times and under many atmospheric conditions, and this subject accounts for about one tenth of his life’s work. Hassam did not, however, do paintings in series, like the French Impressionist Claude Monet, although the Appledore coastline paintings are reminiscent of the coastal scene paintings Monet made in the earlier 1880s around Pourville and Étretat.
In the Dumbarton Oaks pastel drawing, Hassam has depicted a finger of rock at the water’s edge, captured at the moment when the ancient bedrock is inundated by the sea on a seemingly overcast day. The more vibrant hues and detail of the foamy water and the dark band of rock in the foreground give way to the almost abstract striation and lower color tone of the distant sea, which Hassam achieved with parallel lines of loosely drawn cobalt pastel. An almost imperceptible horizon line divides the bands of atmospheric sky of pale aqua green, white, and beige from the sea below. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Hassam would continue to experiment with this type of atmospheric rendering of the sea and sky which is reminiscent of the work of James McNeill Whistler, especially his Nocturnes of the 1870s.
(1) Ulrich W. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam, American Impressionist (Munich/New York, 1994), 117.
Sacred Art, Secular Context, Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. Asen Kirin, editor. Athens, Georgia: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2005, 160-161, no. 74.
Carder, James. American Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 98-101, no. 15.
The Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, Georgia, Sacred Art, Secular Context, May 15-November 6, 2005, no. 74.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., American Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Selections from the House Collection, October 26, 2010-February 13, 2011, no. 15.
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., until January 17, 1969.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C.