We would like to thank the Hassam catalogue raisonné committee for their assistance with cataloguing this work.
This painting will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.
Sunset: Ironbound, Mt. Desert, Maine belongs to an important and daring series of works in which Childe Hassam investigates the effects of color and light off the Atlantic coast. Hassam focuses on the expanse of the sea inhabited only by a small jetty of land, creating horizontal bands that verge on abstraction. Through deft handling of steady yet broken brushstrokes Sunset: Ironbound, Mt. Desert, Maine becomes a brilliant Impressionist display. His sophisticated treatment of paint combined with a jewel-like palette emphasizes Hassam's atmospheric effects. In Ironbound Island, Mt. Desert Hassam captures the rejuvenating color and warmth of summer composed of bright pinks and yellows and bathes the work with a warm glow that does not diffuse the scene, but imbues the water and sky with form and texture.
Hassam wrote: "The fact is, the sort of atmosphere they like to see in a picture they couldn't breathe in for two minutes. I like air that is breathable. They are fond of that rich brown tone in a painting. Well, I am not, because it is not true…This blue that I see in the atmosphere is beautiful, because it is one of the conditions of this wonderful nature all about us. If you are looking toward any distant object, there will be between you and that object air, and the deeper and denser the volume of air, the bluer it will be." (as quoted in A.E. Ives, "Talks with Artists: Childe Hassam on Painting Street Scenes," Art Amateur, 27 October 1892, p. 116) Nowhere is this quest for a pure depiction of the atmosphere he sought to capture as successful than in Sunset: Ironbound Island, Mt. Desert, a thoroughly modern distillation of the effects of sunlight on calm blue waters.
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, which he molded to suit his own aesthetic objectives. Hassam studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, 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.
Upon Hassam’s return from abroad, he took up a studio in New York City but spent every summer up and down the coast of New England. Most of these summer months were spent with Celia Thaxter, poet, avid gardener, and proprietor of the Appledore House on Appledore Island in the Isles of Shoals. Her death in 1894 prompted Hassam to seek out new destinations as sources for artistic inspiration. In the summer of 1896, Hassam visited the small, privately owned island of Ironbound. He was visiting the home of fellow artist, Dwight Blaney, whose family owned the property just off the coast of Winter Harbor, in Mount Desert, a popular and particularly fashionable vacation destination.
In these picturesque summer locales, such as the Isles of Shoals and Ironbound Island, Hassam had infinite subject matter at his disposal to which he could apply his particular brand of Impressionism. Although he absorbed various tenets of the movement 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 Island 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) is evocative of Hassam's works of this time such as Sunset: Ironbound Island, Mt. Desert, painted twenty five 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: Ironbound, Mt. Desert, Maine, 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.
In Sunset: Ironbound, Mt. Desert, Maine, Hassam uses a tapestry of brushwork and a lively palette in a style more abstract and which anticipates his masterwork, Sunset at Sea (1905 and 1911, Private Collection), painted a decade later off the coast of Appledore. Hassam adopts a varied and vibrant palette, building his composition horizontally in textured bands of color. From the water-filled lower half of the canvas to the intermediary darker zones of layered island forms, to the skyscape lightening upwards, Hassam organizes his canvas in a series of separate forms. Just to the right of center, the line of warm, dramatic sunlight creates balance, anchoring the composition and flattening the landscape. Through smaller, broken brushstrokes and intertwined warm and cool tones, Hassam achieves the water’s shimmering effect. "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. 175-76)
Sunset: Ironbound, Mt. Desert, Maine, 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. Rather notably, Sunset: Ironbound, Mt. Desert, Maine holds a position of significant stature in American history, hanging in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House from around 1977 to 1989. The room, a space for official entertaining, was regularly used as a pre-dinner gathering space for heads of state. Hassam’s piece, together with works by Thomas Moran, David Kennedy and Andrew Melrose hung adjacent to the fireplace, over which hung a landscape by Jasper F. Cropsey.