Saturday, June 23, 2012

Islands Oceanic

This month I am out upon the Isles of Shoals as often as possible. It's a series of rocky, windswept islands nine or so miles off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire: Rhythmic surf, whitewashed wooden structures, tenacious sea-roses, bleached and battered stone. 

Nineteenth-century painters and men-and-women-of-letters once gathered for "salons" here, particularly upon Appledore Island, where poet Celia Thaxter lived. Thaxter wrote enduring descriptive essays about the life and history of the islands. It was she who convinced Frederick C. Hassam to add the archaic "e" to his middle name ("Child") in the manner of Byron's Childe Harold.

Childe (1859-1935), as everyone indeed called him, was an early American adopter of the methods of the French Impressionists. He rejected conventional academic training and technique in the manner of another frequent visitor to the island, the very influential Boston artist and teacher William Morris Hunt. I've written extensively about Hunt's Francophile influence on American art here.

"Seeing big" and expressing sensations directly is going to be a significant part of a workshop I'm leading on the Isles of Shoals next month. I will be exhibiting some 15-20 new paintings of the Isles of Shoals at the Portsmouth Discovery Center this August.

Childe Hassam, watercolor, the Isles of Shoals
Sometimes Hassam seems to paint the morning light striking the veins of quartz and feldspar that form the jagged island coasts as though responding in paint to Celia Thaxter's prose: 

"The sea is rosy, and the sky; the line of land is radiant; the scattered sails glow with the delicious color that touches so tenderly the bare, bleak rocks. These are lovelier than sky or sea or distant sails, or graceful gulls' wings reddened with the dawn; nothing takes color so beautifully as the bleached granite; the shadows are delicate, and the fine, hard outlines are glorified and softened beneath the fresh first blush of sunrise." ("Among the Isles of Shoals," 1875).

Childe Hassam, oil, The Isles of Shoals

My own challenge is to forget Hassam's work but to remember his achievement and to take him at his word: "Subjects suggest to me a color scheme and I just paint." 

"An artist should paint his own time and treat nature as he feels it," he said, "not repeat the same stupidities of his predecessors." In Hassam's case, I think we'd have to substitute "successes" for "stupidities." But the sense of what he says rings true, and the implications for the practice of painting are huge.

Above: painting friends Mary Graham, Donald Jurney, and Todd Bonita joined me on a recent painting trip to Star Island, Isles of Shoals. The lot of us painting out there looked more 1912 than 2012.

As I take it, lived courageously the act of painting sometimes leads to moments of fuller being. That's what I'm really chasing on the Shoals. In the words of one of Hassam's truest successors, Robert Henri, "what we need is more sense of the wonder of life, and less of the business of making a picture."


  1. Sounds like a magical place. And I love that Henri quoto. Wonder is where its at. This photograph is spectacular! You all do look like you just walked out of one of those 19th century salons!

  2. 'Twas certainly fun, albeit crushingly hot. We proved them wrong who say you cannae catch fish at mid-day. I look forward to seeing your entire harvest!

  3. Mad dogs and Englishmen and plein air painters…