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Peabody Essex Museum
July 16 – November 6, 2016

By Kevin Wolf

Robert Hughes, in American Visions, his sweeping history of art in America, when treating Impressionism makes mention of the American enthusiasm for this movement (as opposed to open disdain in much of France when it originated). Naturally, painters in the US took up the form, though Hughes feels much of the work produced was “routine and insipid.”

Aside from Mary Cassatt, an American working in Paris, Hughes finds particular merit in the paintings of two American Impressionists: Maurice Prendergast and Childe Hassam.

Now comes an opportunity to see Hassam’s work centering on his longtime relationship with one place: Appledore Island, Maine. A collaboration by the PEM with The North Carolina Museum of Art and the Shoals Marine Laboratory, located on Appledore, it proves Hughes’ assessment of Hassam’s work was not wrong.

While Impressionism may bring to mind light-filled skies, pleasure boating, and park picnics, Hassam is having none of it. The subject of this exhibit is simply Appledore Island, its rocks meeting the sea, its topography, and flora, the ever-present horizon. Hassam doesn’t bother to depict people, houses, anything manmade. Instead, the pictures consist of changing skies, rocky shores, laurel bushes, salt water pools, and flowers.

The brushstrokes, even in his watercolors, are done with such decisive verve that the places depicted – despite Impressionism’s reputation for a vague concentration on light at the expense of everything else; have a solidity and specificity strong enough to enable the precise location of the sites painted. (This the exhibit and even more so the catalog make clear. And the black and white photos of present day Appledore Island by Alexandra de Steiguer, also on view, offer a strong contrast to Hassam’s paintings while reinforcing the sense of place his paintings evoke.)

Indeed, Hassam’s works are so strong and his feel for Appledore so intimate that, upon reflection after viewing, one might suppose they were remembering a visit to the island rather than an exhibition of paintings. The PEM, does in fact, encourage visits to Appledore and Star Islands in the Isles of Shoals. Absent such a trip, this Childe Hassam show is a welcome alternative.


Hōkūleʻa arrives at Salem Maritime National Historic Site



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