Childe Hassam and Celia Thaxter’s Garden

If you’ve seen even just one of Childe Hassam’s brilliant paintings in the NCMA’s American Impressionist exhibition, then you’ll know that Appledore Island’s timeless blooms–seen through Hassam’s eyes–are transporting. Transporting to another time when poetess and perennial salonni¨re Celia Thaxter played hostess to a circle of 19th-century creatives from her seasonal home in Maine’s Isles of Shoals.

Childe Hassam, In the Garden (Celia Thaxter in Her Garden), 1892, oil on canvas, 22 1/4 x 18 in., courtesy The National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, http://americanart.si.edu; (This painting is not in the exhibition.)Celia’s summertime salon on remote Appledore Island was renowned not only for its cerebral conversation and elite guest list, but also for its inspiring natural environs: a breezy coastline, rocky seaside outcroppings, and of course, her garden. Her garden brimming with color: poppies, mignonette, hollyhock. All immortalized in Hassam’s wistful paintings–in what I feel must only have been an ode to Celia Thaxter, gardener-muse.

But what, I wondered, had become of the garden itself?

To find out, I sat down with Erica Anderson, Appledore Island’s first horticultural fellow (at the Shoals Marine Laboratory) and champion of the effort to reconstruct Celia Thaxter’s seaside garden on the island as it was in Hassam’s time. 

Childe Hassam, From the Doorway, 1892, watercolor on paper, 21 1/4 x 17 1/4 in., Private collection, North CarolinaErica–a horticulturalist with an art historian’s eye–first visited the tiny island in 2014. Of her first glimpse, she wrote in her blog IslandGardner:

The garden slumbers as I approach it this evening after my arrival at Appledore Island. Little does this tiny plot of earth know that, come the morning sun, it will be flooded by a sea of colorful flowers! I steal through the gate quietly, curious what I will find in this seemingly forgotten corner of the island. As seagulls swirl and call, I find more than I expected–weeds, yes, but also reminders of the garden’s colorful past. To one side of a broken container, white pansies emerge from the shadows, and at the northwest corner of the garden, a giant white rosebush flaunts delicate blooms despite an unrelenting sea breeze. A purple-and-white columbine softens a rugged backdrop of fencing, while an intensely orange oriental poppy surges toward the sky. The garden may be sleeping, but it is most definitely alive!Childe Hassam, Flower Garden, circa 1892, watercolor on paper, 19 5/8 — 13 7/8 in., George M. and Linda H. Kaufman

Erica had come to Appledore to assist in the effort to replant the plot that was once Celia’s walled flower garden with heritage varietals and other flowers Celia had long ago identified in her book An Island Garden (1894) as among her botanical catalogue. In scrutinizing the flowers listed in Celia’s garden plans, Erica observed that each variety seemed to speak to some unique, esoteric aspect of Celia’s character:

I read in An Island Garden about how “the Mourning Brides are fine in their sumptuous black-red velvet” (123), and suddenly I realized that she was talking about [Scabiosa atropurpurea] … Seen as melancholy yet dignified widows dressed in mourning, the flowers take on a whole new life. Celia Thaxter had her own share of hardships and heartaches, and in a small way these unsuspecting blossoms represent her sadness. They remind me that sorrow has a place in the garden, yet also that the garden is very often the place in which that feeling can most easily grow into joy.

Attributed to Karl Thaxter (1852—1912), Childe Hassam painting on the porch of Celia Thaxter’s cottage, 1880—1910, archival photograph, Portsmouth Athenaeum, Isles of Shoals Photograph Collection, P21.095I asked Erica how her background in art history had uniquely equipped her for the task of reviving the garden that once inspired Childe Hassam. Art historians are very visual, she told me. Gardens combine aesthetics with science. And gardens are evocative–they make us feel beauty and emotion–both of which are powerful artistic and literary motivators.

As to the sensory experience, Erica quotes Celia herself: the scents of the garden “waft everywhere, into the house and here and there in all directions, in viewless clouds on the gentle air.”

What was it like to be the solitary steward of a garden surrounded on all sides by the Atlantic, I wondered aloud. Erica, perhaps not unlike Celia before her, spoke of an “aesthetic and intellectual purpose” guiding her conservancy of the garden. According to Erica, Celia had never explicitly intended these gardens for show; rather, the garden served the distinct purpose of supplying the house with fragrant, colorful blooms.

“If we are fully to experience Celia Thaxter’s garden,” Erica writes, “then we must endeavor to see each of its [floral] inhabitants the way she did–wonderingly, intimately, and reverently. Her manner of seeing engages mind, heart, and spirit all at once. Ultimately, hers is a very selfless vision. Although uniquely her own, her mode of observation moves beyond herself to something more.”

Perhaps it was this–Celia’s knack for marrying art and nature–that found a kindred spirit in Hassam so many years ago.

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