Celia Thaxter begins her renowned 1894 book on gardening by musing on the remarkable phenomenon of growth itself: "Of all the wonderful things in the wonderful universe of God, nothing seems to me more surprising than the planting of a seed in the blank earth and the result thereof. Take a Poppy seed, for instance: it lies in your palm, there merest atom of matter, hardly a spec, a pin's point in bulk, but within it is imprisoned a spirit of beauty ineffable, which will break its bonds and emerge from the dark ground and blossom in a splendor so dazzling as to baffle all powers of description." (C. Thaxter, An Island Garden, New York, 1894, p. 3)
The poppy, with its intense red color and graceful stem, was indeed a special flower to Thaxter, who had a garden teeming with different varieties of plants. In describing the poppy, she notes: "I know of no flower that has so many charming tricks and manners, none with a method of growth more picturesque and fascinating. The stalks often take a curve, a twist from some current of air or some impediment, and the fine stems will turn and bend in all sorts of graceful ways, but the bud is always held erect when the time comes for it to blossom." (An Island Garden, p. 82)
By the late nineteenth century, Celia Thaxter had cultivated an informal group of literary and artistic friends, including Childe Hassam, who spent part of each summer in communion on the island of Appledore. It was here that Childe Hassam, America's foremost Impressionist painted some of his finest pictures. "Appledore was a place where the imagination could flourish. Inspired by impressions of the parlor's cultured atmosphere, the garden's brilliant color, and the landscape's wild beauty, Hassam executed some of his most successful works at the Isles of Shoals, where he conducted periodic summer painting campaigns from the mid-1880s until about 1916. The finest Shoals images, created between 1890 and 1912, coincide with the full flowering of Hassam's powers as a painter." (D.P. Curry, An Island Garden Revisited, New York, 1990, p. 14)
Of the works that Hassam created on Appledore, his images of Thaxter's garden are certainly his most inspired, and the same poppies that Thaxter cherished, frequently inspired Hassam. Thaxter's garden, although carefully tended by the poet, was an informal and personal plot. "Thaxter planted her beds as she arranged cut flowers, with an eye towards free-form combinations of color and texture. In the early 1880s, when she began gardening in earnest, Thaxter's flower beds were unusual. She avoided the mid-Victorian practice of carpet gardening, which reduced the flowers to a vegetal approximation of a living room rug. The garden did not contain long-flowering, harshly colored annuals set in sharply contrasted formal patterns. Instead Thaxter favored a naturalistic, amorphous explosion of softer tints and tones, planted in irregular drifts and masses that intertwined and overlapped." (An Island Garden Revisited, pp. 68-70) In Poppies, Appledore, Hassam captured a thick mass of fertile and vibrant flowers growing on the island. By choosing a perspective where he could focus solely on a small slice of poet's garden and nothing else, Hassam gives his viewer the sense of intimacy of Appledore afforded by its breadth and remote location.
However, Hassam was not content to simply copy the brilliant light and color of the island. With the trained eye of a virtuoso artist, Hassam carefully composed his compositions. "Oils, watercolors and pastels painted at the Isles of Shoals are energized by the artist's sensuous embrace of light and color effects, but they also reveal his efforts to maintain a balanced synthesis between line and color. His attention to subjects from modern life as well as purely artistic concerns reflects a knowledge of both English and French art theory, making the Shoals pictures particularly instructive. Not all his work bears the stamp of conviction with which he recorded the colorful flowers and rocks of Appledore on canvas or paper." (An Island Garden Revisited, p. 14) In Poppies, Appledore, Hassam carefully arranged the colors of his composition, and interspersed dabs of vivid blue and white highlights among the green grasses. In addition, he has warmed the lower portion of the canvas with sunny yellow flowers, and capped off the composition with brilliant red poppies. The flowers vibrate with intensity, and their tangle suggests the continual breezes that swept across the small island. Tall grasses in the distance, gracefully bowed in the wind, are featured unobtrusively in the uppermost portion of the canvas. With a combination of careful observation and some artistic license, Hassam successfully captures "the peculiar wealth of color which the marine atmosphere, or else some fairy spell of the place, lends to the poppies and marigolds which grow in the poet's garden." (as quoted in An Island Garden Revisited, 15)
Rather than being an exact transcription of the poet's garden in Appledore, Childe Hassam's paintings provided him with a context in which to experiment with composition and display his skill, and perhaps most importantly to give viewer a feeling of the life in Appledore. Indeed, Hassam's Appledore pictures bring to life the remarkable lifestyle of the island and "the magical, detached quality of the garden plot, set on a hill over-looking the ocean." (An Island Garden Revisited, p. 68)
This painting will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.