In 1889 Childe Hassam ventured to the remote island of Appledore nestled among the Isles of Shoals off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. Though Appledore was primarily a resort community, Hassam was lured to the island by the poetess and avid gardener, Celia Thaxter. Thaxter had established an informal salon composed of distinguished writers, musicians and noteworthy artists such as Ross Turner, J. Appleton Brown and Arthur Quartley. Hassam discovered in Thaxter a unique and engaging spirit, who invoked in him a sense of freedom, exhilaration and imagination. The shoreline of Appledore was a great attraction to any island visitor, whether tourist or artist. "He saw what Thaxter also admired, 'a splendor of wild clouds at sunset, dusk heaps with scarlet fringes, scattered flecks of flame in a clear crimson air above the fallen sun.'" (Childe Hassam: An Island Garden Revisited, New York, 1990, p. 166) His adoration of the light and color of the island was the motive for his return every year for almost 30 years.
Sunset at Sea is part of a series of works where Hassam investigates the effects of color and light off the coast of Appledore. By eliminating a foreground, Hassam focuses on the expanse of the sea inhabited only by a small, distant sailboat, making the work nearly abstract. Through deft handling of steady yet broken brushstrokes, Sunset at Sea becomes a brilliant Impressionist display. His sophisticated handling of paint combined with a jewel-like palette emphasizes Hassam's atmospheric effects. In Sunset at Sea he captures the rejuvenating color and warmth of summer composed of bright pinks and yellows and bathes the work with intense sunlight that does not diffuse the scene, but imbues the water and sky with form and texture.
Hassam began to develop his Impressionistic style during his extended stay in France from 1886 to 1889, a period during which he closely studied and adopted aspects of the Impressionist technique, approach and choice of subject matter that he molded to suit his own aesthetic objectives. Hassam moved to Paris with the intent of "refining his talent in the larger crucible of contemporary art." (D.F. Hoopes, Childe Hassam, New York, 1982, p. 13) While in Paris, Hassam studied at the Académie Julian though his experience at the school was neither favorable nor beneficial to his art. Hassam wrote: "The Julian Academy is the personification of routine...It is nonsense. It crushes all originality out of the growing men." (as quoted in U. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, New York, 1994, p. 32) Working independently of the Académie, Hassam learned his most important artistic lessons on his own.
Although he absorbed various tenets of Impressionism and began to focus on bright light and adopted short quick brushstrokes, Hassam consistently rejected the classification of Impressionist. Donaldson F. Hoopes writes, "If the search for the equivalent in paint of the light of nature involved borrowing some of the Impressionists' innovations, then he borrowed, but at no time in his career did Hassam subordinate the emotional content of the represented image to a supremacy of color or technique." (Childe Hassam, p. 13) Hassam did not believe in depicting views exactly as they were in nature, rather he preferred to model them to his compositional vision. He maintained, "The definition so often given of the work of modern painters in landscape--which is, that they take a motif anywhere, as if looking out of an open window, and painting it just as they see it--is partly erroneous, only a half truth. These painters do try to give you frankly the aspect of the thing seen in its fundamental and essential truths: but that they do not place things as they feel they should be placed to get the balance and beauty of the whole, well seen within the frame, is a mistaken idea" (Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, p. 131)
Hassam's visions of twilight were deeply influenced by James McNeill Whistler's innovative Nocturnes and aesthetic theories regarding light discussed in the Ten O'Clock Lectures. In fact, Hassam's summer reading on Appledore included this well-known treatise. Much like Whistler, Hassam was not concerned with duplicating specific light in his twilight and nighttime works, but rather utilizing light to create a harmonious effect. Whistler's Nocturne: Blue and Silver--Chelsea of 1871 (Tate Gallery, London, fig. 1) is evocative of Hassam's works of this time such as Sunset at Sea, painted thirty years later. In the painting, Whistler captures the ephemeral effects of light and weather. His palette is restricted to subdued colors and he reduces every detail. He has painted a quiet scene on the Thames as a barge slowly makes its way down the river just after sundown. As Hassam does in Sunset at Sea, Whistler presents the work from a bird's eye view as varying shades of blue pervade the scene with scattered reflections of light glimmering on the water's surface. Just as Hassam does in Sunset at Sea, Whistler concentrates on light, color and form. Susan Larkin writes of the present painting, "The spare Sunset at Sea injects Whistlerian composition with intense Postimpressionist color. The stylization of clouds and water into decorative striations recalls Georges Seurat's The Lighthouse at Honfleur (1886, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)."
"Although Hassam did not adopt Seurat's Pointillist brushstroke, he exploited the coarse weave of the canvas to catch dabs of brilliant pigment, creating a tapestry of color like that produced by his French contemporary. Hassam almost certainly saw the works of Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Bonnard, Èdouard Vuillard, and other Postimpressionists during his stays in Europe, including his last, in 1910, the year before he painted Sunset at Sea. Although he disavowed the influence of French art with mounting vehemence, its effect is evident in his paintings." ("Hassam in New England," Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, New Haven, Connecticut, 2004) In Sunset at Sea, the significance of the brushwork is supreme. Hassam uses a tapestry of brushwork and a vibrant palette, a style more abstract than he previously painted and demonstrate his maturing Impressionist technique.
Instead of using color to delineate space and define the composition, Hassam has used a variety of brushstrokes. The water along the bottom of the canvas is applied with smaller, broken strokes to delineate the light's effect on the choppy surface. In the center, where the sun's rays are reflected on the water's surface, Hassam applied paint sparingly while the sky is rendered with broad, unbroken bands of pinks and yellows. Hassam experimented with this type of composition somewhat regularly during the summers he spent on Appledore. "In each case, the act of painting is clearly paramount, and the visual impact of pure, brilliant pigments is sufficient to carry the picture. Such works support the generalization in Hassam's obituary that he 'could create design by color.' Whistler's impact is clear, and Hassam welcomed it." (Childe Hassam: An Island Garden Revisited, pp. 175-76)
The layering of pigments in Hassam's modern depiction of a seascape can be seen in the much later color field paintings of Mark Rothko. For example, his Untitled (Green, Red on Orange) (private collection, New York, fig. 2) of 1951, consists of two shimmering blocks of radiant green and red painted over a vibrant orange ground. The colors harmonize beautifully on the canvas, the chromatic relationships set off almost imperceptible vibrations that activate the entire surface. The placement and depth of color dispense with the traditional notions of the drawn line, modeling and perspective in painting. They call for the flattening effect of the picture. Against a monochromatic field of orange, rectangular areas of green and red seem to hover over the surface. The painting achieves a balance with cool and warm tones through the artist's manipulation of the scale and corresponding proportions of the color passages. The success of both Hassam's and Rothko's paintings is directly related to his intense study and mastery of color.
Sunset at Sea, and its highly developed, patterned surface, serves as a superlative example of Hassam's seascapes from this period and conveys the full vision of Hassam's lively Impressionist style. The tranquility and serenity of this image is poignantly recorded, and he successfully creates an idyllic composition that embraces the sea in its most beautiful and picturesque form. Through Hassam's Impressionist gaze, the timeless beauty of Appledore is poignantly recorded. Appledore afforded Hassam the ability to escape from the oppressive and mundane life in the city and allowed his mind to wander and retreat into the depths of his own imagination. Hassam, by fully manifesting these introspective journeys onto canvas, offered viewers of his Appledore pictures similar passage. As a critic in 1914 noted: "Mr. Hassam...has continued to make [The Shoals] his favorite painting ground and has helped to make the rocky coves and surf-washed headlands familiar to thousands who have never seen the place itself." (as quoted in Childe Hassam: A Garden Isle Revisited, p. 159)
This painting will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.