An elegant American impressionist still life by Childe Hassam and a stately oil lamp hand-painted by Celia Laighton Thaxter, now paired in the new American Wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art, signal a change in the way Americans thought about Nature. Each was created during the tumultuous period when—as the United States emerged as a major global economic power—our relationship to the landscape gradually changed. In the decades preceding American Impressionism, enormous machine paintings of regal mountain vistas by Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Moran, and others gave way to the commercial viability of the oil sketch and the dominance of closely observed local incident over large national themes. In the face of urban development and attendant pollution, Victorian families used green houses and terrariums to bring nature indoors for study and enjoyment. Objects of decorative art embellished with ornament drawn from nature reinforced engagement with the natural world. Filled with “the flowers our grandmothers loved,” old-fashioned cottage gardens were planted as a Colonial Revival antidote to the fast pace of modern life. Away from home, Americans experienced nature through the founding of the national park system, the growth of natural history museums and botanic gardens, as well as expanding tourism, and an explosion of articles in the popular press.
Once deemed the most idiosyncratic watering-place in the Union, Appledore—among the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire—was the prototype for early 20th-century American summer art colonies. At the Shoals, Thaxter celebrated progressive art, music, and literature in a beautiful natural environment. Hassam was a tourist when he painted the tea roses in Thaxter’s parlor. His freely brushed still life records the type of monochromatic bouquet she regularly gathered from the garden outside her cottage door. The 15 x 50-foot raised-bed plot became famous when she published An Island Garden (Boston, 1893). Gaining traction as an up-and-coming American impressionist, Hassam became one of Thaxter’s favorite artistic guests. As his first muse she commissioned the young painter to illustrate her garden book with delicate landscapes and vignettes. A critic observed that Hassam’s paintings gave “the world which cannot get to Appledore Island an idea of the peculiar wealth of color which the marine atmosphere, or else some fairy spell of the place, lends to the [flowers] which grow in the poet’s garden.”
At first glance, Hassam’s luscious impression of somewhat blown roses in a glass vase seems an unlikely battle standard. He was just back from Europe and eager to tailor the lessons of French avant-garde art to his own purposes. His fragile bouquet, a finely tuned orchestration of yellows and greens set against a richly painted yet almost abstract background, hoists the banner of art for art’s sake, signaling firm commitment to light, color, texture, indeed all that makes painting beautiful. Hassam would spend his long career battling for beauty.
As a woman writer with an undependable husband, Celia Laighton Thaxter, too, had battles to fight. Hassam first met the poet and journalist in Boston when she sought watercolor lessons in the early 1880s. Obliged to supplement the income generated by the Laighton family’s seasonal hotel, Thaxter applied her skills to decorative china painting and book illumination, socially acceptable occupations for genteel women at the time. Proceeds from her artistry also supported her own widely recognized but poorly paid literary efforts. Graceful olive branches, her most distinctive pattern, decorate the parlor lamp now in the BMA’s collection. The Greek inscription is taken from Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus: “watched by the eye of olive-guarding Zeus and by gray-eyed Athena.”
On Appledore Island poet and painter honed their powers of observation, keeping watch for a personal understanding of the natural world around them. Guided by the influential English art critic John Ruskin, whose ideas were discussed in the cultured atmosphere of the parlor, each artist carefully examined flowers to know them better, but avoided scientific analysis in favor of description that offered a pathway to imaginative sensibility. The careful scrutiny of nature served as a springboard for the imagination, triggering not only poetic language but also painted images that sidestep natural grandeur’s potential to overwhelm or baffle. As Thaxter’s lamp illuminates the concept of a carefully decorated, art- and flower-filled interior, Hassam’s suggestively abstract oil painting favors intimate personal experience, furthered by the relatively small scale of his work from the Isles of Shoals. Layers of pigment form a sensuous surface that takes on an abstract life of its own with colors still bold and fresh, offering us not so much a record of place as an intimation of spirit, communicating what it was to pause for a moment amidst such resplendent blossoms.