SALEM — No matter how pleasing to the eye it is, American Impressionism will always seem a belated, secondhand, and mostly second-rate affair, for the simple reason that it is not French Impressionism.
Even Dorchester native Childe Hassam (1859-1935), American Impressionism’s leading practitioner, fails to get the kudos routinely accorded Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, or John Singer Sargent. Those artists had to negotiate the Impressionist moment, but they all ultimately clung to a more conservative idiom, making something new of it by force of temperament.
In fairness, Hassam wasn’t quite in their class. But he was a devoted and talented painter. Inspired in part by three years in Paris in the 1880s, he took to a style which in France 10 years earlier had been radical, but which in the United States, oddly, took root among East Coast artists and collectors of distinctly conservative pedigree.
Just prior to his French adventure, Hassam had painted one of the Museum of Fine Arts’s most popular paintings, the softly realist “At Dusk (Boston Common at Twilight)” as well as the equally assured “Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston,” a sort of Back Bay riposte to Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street, Rainy Day.”
Hassam first visited Appledore Island, one of the so-called Isles of Shoals southeast of Portsmouth, N.H., in about 1882. The island had a grand, luxurious hotel. It was crowded with well-heeled vacationers. Many were drawn to the island because its most celebrated resident, writer Celia Thaxter (1835-94), had evoked it so pungently, and they wanted to be nearer to her, her beautiful garden, and the source of her poetry.
The place suited Hassam. He befriended Thaxter; he stayed in the hotel established by her father and husband; he painted her garden; and they collaborated on a book of her poems. Aside from a five-year intermission in the 1890s, he returned almost every summer for the next 30 years.
The paintings and watercolors Hassam made on Appledore make up one-10th of his entire output. They are the subject of “American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals,” at the Peabody Essex Museum, which closes Nov. 6.
The museum has tried hard not only to stimulate interest in the island’s history but to evoke its atmosphere. Hidden speakers emit Impressionist music as well as the recorded sounds of crashing waves, evening crickets, and sea birds. Audiences are greeted by a blown-up photograph of the Appledore Hotel, which burned down in 1912. Further in, there are moody black-and-white photographs by Alexandra de Steiguer of the island today, as well as a satellite image on which the outlines of the destroyed hotel’s foundations are clearly visible.
A window-like aperture in a partition wall opens onto a space with chairs from which summer vacationers might have watched the sun set. A desk nearby offers the chance, if you’re so inclined, to write a postcard describing (the suggestion is helpfully offered) “a favorite place where you have spent time.” There’s even a functioning mailbox in which to drop it (postage not required).
Against all this infantilizing prattle — which has more or less become the norm at the Peabody Essex Museum — the paintings hold their own. Hassam’s touch, his ability to suggest the transparency of water, the different textures of shrubs, surf, and rocks, and the majesty of the sun-bleached island as a whole, are all remarkable.
Yet few of these paintings quicken the pulse. There is a repetitiveness about them — unsurprising perhaps; small islands constrain opportunities — and a niggling sense that, for all Hassam’s considerable ability, something is missing: some aspect of drama, urgency, or individual style forged in adversity.
The show was organized by John W. Coffey, deputy director of the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s curator of American art. Coffey and Hal Weeks, who worked on Appledore Island for the Shoals Marine Laboratory, went to great lengths to locate the exact site of each individual painting.
Their effort seems admirably dogged. But it serves mainly to draw attention to a similar doggedness in Hassam — a tendency to favor an almost scientific fidelity to nature (nature, it should be added, at its most benign) over any more poetic vision.
Not that Hassam didn’t adjust his colors and, at times, the physical facts before him if it suited his purposes. But his limitations can be described fairly accurately in terms of those purposes: He wanted to make good, attractive, sunny pictures; he wanted them to sell. He didn’t ask too much more of them.
John Updike, a writer with an attractive tendency to see America through the lens of his own New England experience, might have meant “New England” instead of “American” when he wrote that Hassam’s case “is very American in that we feel something — the haut-bourgeois art market he had to court, or a prematurely closed mind, or a too-keen enjoyment of a comfortable and honored life — prevented him from doing full justice to his talent.”
Updike was surely right. And yet out of the slightly sapping heat haze of this show there emerge several highlights. “Sunset at Sea,” which Hassam painted in 1911, and which Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum decided to deaccession in 2007, is a large and almost perfectly square canvas. Two-thirds of it is devoted to sea, one-third to sky. A sailing ship is shown in silhouette near the distant horizon. The heaping purples and oranges flooding the sky are subtly reflected in the broken colors of the foreground sea, dappled with turquoise and gold.
Both it and the smaller “The West Wind, Isles of Shoals” (1904), where the royal blue sea, flecked with whitecaps, takes up fully four-fifths of the canvas, seem more modern, and somehow less programmatic than Hassam’s daytime coastal pictures. That’s because they are pure exercises in rich, uncompromised color, not careful negotiations (typical of American Impressionism) between broken brush strokes of different hue and the prevailing tonalism of the day. (Tonal painting was keyed to shades of light and dark, not color.)
“Moonlight” (1892) and a series of small sunsets and sunrises Hassam painted on cigar box lids are among the show’s other highlights. Engaging, too, are the deft watercolors he painted in 1912, a year in which he was particularly productive. Just about everything Hassam painted rewards close looking. Very little, however, rises to greatness.
AMERICAN IMPRESSIONIST: CHILDE HASSAM AND THE ISLES OF SHOALS
At Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, through Nov. 6. 978-745-9500. www.pem.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.