You've got about a month to get down to Salem and see American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals at the Peabody Essex Museum. It's the first exhibition in more than 25 years to focus on his work from visits to the tiny archipelago visible a few miles off the New Hampshire coast. If you grew up in the southeast corner of the the Granite State, as I did, you've probably visited the Isles of Shoals and sailed around them. If you also grew up with a print of Hassam's At Dusk (Boston Common at Twilight) hanging over the couch, as I did, you may have Hassam's perspective deeply implanted in your brain. Even if neither is true, this is a show very much worth seeing. Co-organized with the North Carolina Museum of Art in cooperation with the Shoals Marine Laboratory, the exhibit runs through Nov. 6.
Beginning in 1886, Dorchester native Hassam visited the isles often for three decades, mainly in summer, hanging on his friend poet Celia Thaxter's porch on Appledore and painting what he saw. There's not much of man here, aside from sailboats in the distance, as like a good impressionist he focused on foliage, landscape and the ever-present sea. The main subjects here are Thaxter's famous garden (Thaxter published An Island Garden in 1894 with illustrations by Hassam) and the rocky shore.
Many of the images embody impressionism as it's most commonly thought of, as sun-dappled and dreamy as the Giverny of Monet. Some of these are just pretty, but others are beautiful in a deeper way. (Below: Childe Hassam. Poppies, Isles of Shoals, 1891. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art.)
A few paintings use more vigorous lines that inject craggy landscapes with mysterious life in a way that reminded me of Van Gogh. (Below: Childe Hassam. The Laurel in the Ledges, Appledore, 1905. Oil on canvas. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Promised gift of Ann and Jim Goodnight.)
At the end of the exhibit, there's a sample of the watercolors Hassam made late in his relationship with the islands, which are very different and surprisingly modern in their use of the simplest gestures and almost abstract components. There's a boldness in the best of these that's missing from the "prettiest" paintings in the show. (Below: Childe Hassam. The Cove, 1912. Watercolor on paper. Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas. John W. and Mildred L. Graves Collection.)
PEM has installed rocking chairs and a table of postcards near the end of the exhibit, a nod to the island experience. There's also a selection of 12 black-and-white photographs of Appledore today by Alexandra de Steiguer. Both are the sort of curatorial flourish that seems de rigeur in the modern museum experience, but they're superfluous. Hassam's best paintings carry us to Appledore in a more profound way that needs no such help.