In the Footsteps of Childe Hassam

When I started planning my research trip to Appledore Island to prepare content around American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals for the Museum’s marketing team, one of the first thoughts that popped into my head was, “What do I pack?!”

As a native North Carolinian, I wasn’t used to the rocky, rugged coastlines of tiny New England islands. (The closest I’d ever gotten to oceanside hiking was hotfooting it up North Myrtle Beach’s burning sands toward the O.D. Pavilion arcade every summer as a child.) I stuffed my suitcase with boots suitable for rock scrambling, long-sleeve shirts for the glaring summer sun, and a wide-brimmed hat for warding off any advances by the notoriously aggressive island seagulls.

I traveled to the Isles of Shoals with members of our education team and exhibition curator John Coffey. Our July trip brought us to the island right around the same time of Hassam’s summertime “working vacations,” where he painted all of the exhibition’s 30 paintings and watercolors. Our hikes criss-crossed the island’s 94 acres, up boulders, over steep gorges, and down narrow, brush-lined paths. With the help of Hal Weeks, the former assistant director of Appledore’s Shoals Marine Lab, we quite literally retraced the artist’s steps using a GoPro camera to reimagine how Hassam made his way to some of his paintings’ locations.

Hassam explored the island for more than 25 years, endlessly fascinated with its variety of geological terrain. As we filmed, I couldn’t help but wonder how difficult it must have been for a 19th-century artist to navigate the island’s slippery, unforgiving paths while wearing a dapper three-piece suit and carrying a paint kit and easel.

Standing in each location, I found it easy to understand the root of his interest, especially alongside the island’s eastern-facing shores lined with gorges, trap dikes, and small cliffs. Appledore is one of nine islands that make up the Isles of Shoals, located just off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. Historically, the island was a busy source of seafood. Native American tribes hunted and fished on the Isles of Shoals before English fisherman moved in by the 17th century, catching, curing, and shipping huge amounts of codfish back to Europe. (On our trip, exhibition curator John Coffey’s stories of island lore, including pirates, shipwrecks, and a gruesome double murder, kept me up at night right alongside the island’s squawking seagulls.)

Childe Hassam, Sylph’s Rock, Appledore, 1907, oil on canvas, 25 — 30 in., Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, Gift of Charlotte E. W. Buffington in memory of her husband, 1908.5, © 2015 Worcester Art Museum; Photograph: Frank E. Graham

The island’s fishing industry stalled after the American Revolution, but prosperity returned in the mid-19th century when Thomas Laighton built the Appledore Hotel, one of the first and most famous resort hotels in New England. There Hassam hobnobbed with wealthy families and fellow artists, musicians, and writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The hotel was destroyed in a fire in 1914, leaving only stone foundations and broken china in its wake. And while we couldn’t enjoy any of the hotel’s fine dining, live music, or rounds of tennis on our trip, I doubt those were the things that made Hassam return each summer for nearly three decades. Standing right where he stood, I’d say it was the natural beauty–and magic–of the island itself.

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