Childe Hassam's Moonlit Seascape is a remarkably bold rendition of the expansive ocean surrounding Appledore, in the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire. A combination of Impressionist painting techniques and a modern composition, Moonlit Seascape is a study in refinement and nuance.
Using a palette strictly limited to select tones of blue, Hassam conveys to his audience the feeling of the luminous night. In Moonlit Seascape, the significance of the brushwork is supreme. 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 rendered with a broad, unbroken band of blue. In the center, where the moon's rays are reflected on the water's surface, Hassam applied paint sparingly, and used smaller, broken strokes to delineate the light's effect on the choppy surface. 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." (D.P. Curry, Childe Hassam, An Island Garden Revisited, New York, 1990, pp. 175-6)
It is not surprising that Hassam's imagination would have been stimulated during his summers on Appledore. Its rarified atmosphere, where Hassam spent time communing with other creative types was inspirational, and awakened him to "'the awful beauty of the night, the solemn tenderness, the peace profound, the mystery' Mysteries - subtle color, suggested content - empower Hassam's best studio canvases." (Childe Hassam, An Island Garden Revisited, p. 57)
The sophisticated aesthetics of Moonlit Seascape are enhanced by its original signed and dated frame. Hassam, like many of his contemporaries, attached great importance to the frames that adorned his paintings. For this work, he chose a frame by Hermann Dudley Murphy, who "had perhaps the most profound impact on American frame design at the turn of the century. Murphy was greatly influenced by Whistler and had traveled in Paris at a time when Whistler's studio was a gathering place for many young artists." (S. Smeaton, "On the Edge of Change, Artist-Designed Frames from Whistler to Marin," in The Gilded Age: The Art of the Frame, San Francisco, California, 2000, pp. 64-69)
The style of frame used for Moonlit Seascape is a variation of the cassetta frame, which was a basically flat frame with raised inner and outer moldings. This type of frame was championed by Murphy. "New palettes and different styles of brushwork, in addition to experimentation with new media, called for a radically new style of frame. Murphy's design was perfect. He said 'The framing of a picture is in every way as important a factor in its looking well and receiving the attention it deserves to frame pictures of different styles alike in one design of frame is to kill off their individuality. You may spoil absolutely the effect of a fine picture by an unsuitable frame, just as you may make an almost poor one look distinguished by a proper setting. Put a delicate, subtle Whistler nocturne in a glittering, heavily ornamented frame and hang it on a wall with a lot of other pictures and you will never see it.'" (S. Smeaton, "On the Edge of Change, Artist-Designed Frames from Whistler to Marin," in The Gilded Age: The Art of the Frame, San Francisco, California, 2000, pp. 64-69)
The markings on the reverse of the frame are significant. "Murphy did something else that was to have lasting influence. When he had completed each frame he turned it over and inscribed it with a signature and date, thus making a statement that it too was a work of art. Murphy's frame inscriptions are signed with his cipher: an M with a circle around it (much like Whistler's use of the butterfly), the date, and the words Carrig-Rohane. Carrig Rohane is Irish for red cliff, a reference to his Celtic roots, yet another similarity Murphy and Whistler shared. Finally, the frame verso usually bears a three- or four-digit number near the dated signature. The number usually corresponds to a work-order number. We are especially fortunate that many of these order books survive today, a part of the Carrig-Rohane Papers in the Archives of American Art." (The Gilded Age: The Art of the Frame, San Francisco, California, 2000, pp. 64-69)
With Moonlit Landscape, Childe Hassam was adhering to the firmly established principles of Impressionism, while boldly stepping into the future of art, and it was works like this that prompted contemporary critic Sadakichi Hartmann to comment: "To me Childe Hassam is primarily a great painter of air and soil, of sea and sky. He feels the repose and beauty, the strength and immensity of nature in the simplest scenes." (as quoted in W. Adelson, Childe Hassam, Impressionist, New York, 1999, p. 82)
This painting will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.