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Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935)

Larkspurs and Lillies

Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935)
Larkspurs and Lillies
signed and dated 'Childe Hassam 1893' lower left
watercolor and gouache on paper
19 x 13in. (48.2 x 33cm.)
Celia Thaxter, An Island Garden, Boston, Massachusetts, 1894, p. 50, illus.
D.P. Curry, Childe Hassam: An Island Revisited, New York, 1990, pp. 68-69, no. 21, illus.

Lot Essay

"Ever since I could remember anything, flowers have been like dear friends to me, comforters, inspirers, powers to uplift and to cheer. A lonely child living on the lighthouse ten miles away from the mainland, every blade of grass that sprang out of the ground, every humblest weed, was precious in my sight, and I began a little garden when not more than five years old. From this, year after year, the larger one which has given so much pleasure to so many people, has grown." (C. Thaxter, An Island Garden, p. v)

These words of Celia Thaxter begin her delightful book of 1894, An Island Garden, which features twenty-two of Childe Hassam's finest watercolors. Larkspurs and Lillies of 1893 is one of this series of illustrations which depicts Thaxter's renowned garden on Appledore, the largest of the Isles of Shoals located ten miles off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Of the roughly four thousand works that Hassam produced during his career spanning almost sixty-five years, approximately ten percent of his oeuvre celebrates this popular haven for artists, writers and musicians at the turn of the century.

Childe Hassam first met Celia Thaxter around 1880 in Boston where she was studying painting under Ross Turner. Between 1883-88, Hassam occasionally served as Thaxter's subsitute teacher. Immediately drawn to Thaxter's engaging personality, Hassam acted promptly on the invitation to visit her on Appledore where her family ran a resort hotel. Having grown up on the island, Thaxter cultivated an extraordinary flower garden and welcomed into her home a wide array of regular guests whose talents and creative spirits turned her parlor into one of the most celebrated artist's colonies of the day. Accompanied by William Morris Hunt, J. Appleton Brown and Arthur Quartley, Hassam made Appledore his summer retreat to which he returned each summer until 1916, years after Thaxter's death in 1894.

Having returned to the United States after three years of studying in Paris at the Académie Julian, Hassam arrived on Appeldore with a certain freshness and readiness to explore the world of Impressionism. On the rocky island, the artist found the raw and wild nature perfectly suited to his American style of Impressionism. Revealing the artist's brilliant virtuosity in the medium, the watercolors produced during his finest years between 1890-94 "are energized by the artist's sensual embrace of light and color effects, but they also reveal his efforts to maintain a balanced synthesis between line and color." (D. Curry, Childe Hassam: An Island Garden Revisited, p. 14)

Larkspurs and Lillies is a pictorial celebration of the different colors, forms and arrangements of the flowers assembled in Thaxter's garden. The vividly colored and lyrical image covers the entire sheet and displays the richness of the garden with a vitality and spirit that echoes the design of the garden itself. In cultivating her garden, Thaxter preferred free-form groupings of flowers that combined to create a "naturalistic explosion of softer tints and tones, planted in irregular drifts and masses that intertwined and overlapped." (D. Curry, p. 70) Impressed by the unusual freedom of the garden, one visitor commented: "Her garden...was unlike any other garden, although more beautiful, perhaps, than the more conventional gardens I have seen lately; for it was planted all helter-skelter, just bursts of color here and there,--and what color!" (A. Fields and R. Lamb, eds., Letters of Celia Thaxter, Boston, Massachusetts and New York 1895, p. 94)

Larkspurs and Lilles is one of only a few works in this series which Hassam has devoted the full sheet of paper to the depiction of flowers. Typically his watercolors include wide expanses of sky and sometimes, although rarely, figures. Using the whole sheet to explore the varieties of color and form forces the viewer to experience the beauty of the flowers in an unconventionally intimate manner. Hassam has accented the profusion of greens with the bold red of the poppies, and the brilliant blues and purples of the larkspurs, while leaving blank areas of the sheet to describe the lillies which are highlighted by strokes of white gouache. Larkspurs and Lillies clearly illustrates Hassam's "manipulation of vividly colored wet washes and his rendering of the flowers in the landscape with naturalism and great vitality." (W. Gerdts, American Impressionism, New York p. 102) These talents continually earned the artist accolades by such critics as Albert Gallatin who stated, "Childe Hassam is beyond any doubt the greatest exponent of Impressionism in America." (cited in W. Gerdts, p. 91)

The following words of Celia Thaxter reveal her admiration and enthusiasm for the work of her friend and companion who recorded one of the most interesting periods in the history of American art.

Not only the keen, searching, accurate eye
That lightening swift probes all things to the heart,
But his the cunning hand wherein doth lie
Consummate power and mastery of his art.
Let him but touch a flower, and lo, its soul
Is his, its splendours delicately bright
Upon the happy page he lays, its whole
Sweet history, there to live for Time's delight.
Great moods of nature doth he make his own,
Immortal on the canvas, noble themes
Solemn, august, are his: all Beauty known
Seeks, follows, finds him and upon him beams.
His finger on the world's great pulse, he hears
His triumph calling through the coming years.
(C. Thaxter, Childe Hassam Papers, Archives of American Art)

This watercolor will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.

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