Ever since we returned from Maine in July, I’d been watching the weather reports for a cooler day to go up to Salem to see the exhibition Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals at the Peabody Essex Museum.
A week ahead of time I spotted my day on the 10-day forecast. Tuesday August 23rd was it, a beautiful crisp morning, the coolest in a long time. As planned, I woke up early and got myself down to Long Wharf in time to catch the 9:30 boat to Salem. I could have taken the train, a half hour trip from North Station; the museum is about three blocks from the station. What made this day into an adventure was that I had decided to take the boat to Salem, which I had never done before. One of the many great things about being retired is that I can do things on weekdays when they’re less crowded, and our boat was not crowded at all.
It was a sparkling morning on the water, and I was full of excitement. As we pulled out of Boston, I watched the skyline recede.
Soon we were out in the open waters, following the coast on the left (or should I say port) side with all the familiar North Shore towns. On the right (starboard) there were views of the harbor islands and Boston Light and then only blue water. It was exhilarating to be out in the fresh air with the sea and the sky all around us. I loved being really cool for a change.
The boat ride took about an hour. We passed the beautiful houses along the shore in Swampscott and Marblehead Neck. A friend and I have been in some of them on one of the Marblehead house tours, and now I saw them from the water side. Their setting on the rocky coastline is spectacular, and they can see Boston in the distance.
We arrived in Salem Harbor, which is quite quiet nowadays, passing the Winter Island light house. I took my time walking from the ferry wharf to the museum, since I had all day and the walk of about ten blocks passed by the historic Salem waterfront.
I haven’t been into any of these historic buildings, and I really must go back and see them. The whole area is a National Historic Site. Salem is not what it used to be, but it maintains a great sense of its own history, even the dark side of it. We have such an abundance of preserved history in New England, we sometimes take it for granted. I want to see and learn more now that I have more time.
In the hot sun I walked out to the end of the very long Derby Wharf, which was once the busiest in America, lined with ships and warehouses. Salem’s ships sailed and traded around the world, bringing back tea and spices and silk, among other exotic goods. Now the wharf was empty and almost deserted. A replica ship that is usually docked there was out of port. At the end was the smallest lighthouse I’ve ever seen. The only other person there was a boy on his bicycle. The harbor was quiet.
As I read on one of the informational signs, captains arriving in port in the old days would walk straight up the wharf and directly across the street to the Custom House with their paper work about their cargoes. Before they even saw their wives, even if they’d been gone for years, they would have to take care of this business.
I walked back up the wharf and continued into Salem center and the Peabody Essex Museum. By then it was lunch time, and I had a fairly nice lunch in the atrium café in the museum before going up to the exhibit. It wouldn’t do to be hungry while trying to view the art!
Photography was not allowed in the Childe Hassam exhibition, so you will have to look at the PEM website for more images. There’s also an exhibition catalog. The show is there until November 6th, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in Childe Hassam, the American Impressionists, the Isles of Shoals, Celia Thaxter, or the history of New England summer vacationing. I am interested in all of these, so the exhibit was extremely appealing to me. Childe Hassam was first drawn to the Isles by Celia Thaxter and her salon in the 1880s. He stayed in her family’s hotel or cottages and returned almost every summer to paint on Appledore Island for thirty years, until long after her death. The era ended in 1914 when the hotel burned, and in any case the world was changing drastically by then.
At the beginning of the exhibition photographic images of Appledore are shown on a large screen, as the sound of the waves quietly rolling in and falling back fills the galleries. I was mesmerized right away by the images of the sea. The Globe’s critic did not care for these added effects at all, but I see no reason to be such a purist about the art. I liked the total immersion. This show was about the Isles of Shoals as well as the paintings. Much research had been done by the curators and a marine biologist at the Shoals Marine Lab that occupies the island now, to pinpoint the locations where Hassam painted each work. The book includes that story and devotes a few pages to pairings of the paintings and photographs of the locations as they look now (often much the same).
The paintings of Celia Thaxter’s flower garden, the rocky points, the sea, the moon, the cliffs … were pure pleasure to view. I realize the impressionist style is not in fashion now in the art world and has not been for a long time, even later in Hassam’s life. But the turn-of-the-century is my era, the one I really connect with. Many of the things I collect, the building I live in, and the houses I love best come from the turn-of-the-century and the years on either side of it. The literary figures who were part of Celia Thaxter’s circle are close to my heart too. Sarah Orne Jewett is a great favorite of mine. Thoreau, Longfellow, Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, Elizabeth Peabody, Lucy Larcom, and so many others visited Appledore. It was an important place in New England cultural history.
The exhibit included a gallery of contemporary photographs of Appledore by Alexandra de Steiguer. Their stark black-and-white truth makes an interesting counterpoint to Hassam’s color drenched view of the same places. Alexandra de Steiguer is the winter caretaker of nearby Star Island and, incredibly, spends November to April alone on the island. She must know the Isles of Shoals as few others do. A book of her photographs is available.
Further on in the exhibit, white New England rockers are placed in front of a group of Childe Hassam’s small, glorious sunset paintings. One can sit and rock, as if on the porch of the old Appledore Hotel. The exhibition catalog and other related books were set on tables to look at. The Globe critic didn’t like it, but I felt sitting a while on a rocker made me slow down and spend more time in the exhibition, as did the rhythmic sound of the waves–and surely that is a good thing. To be there and not just walk through. I really enjoyed the whole experience.
The show certainly made me want to go to the Isles of Shoals again. I went to Star Island over thirty years ago on the day excursion boat from Portsmouth and went to Appledore with a group of people to see Celia Thaxter’s restored garden, about fifteen years ago. Maybe next summer…
The rest of my afternoon in Salem was spent walking around the Common and adjacent streets, looking at the houses, something I like to do everywhere I go. I was getting hot and tired, though.
My only disappointment was that the French pastisserie Melita Fiore was not open. I had planned to have tea there. Instead, I went across the street to Melt Ice Cream and had a very good cup of ice cream and a nice sit-down on their window sill before heading down the street to the train station. It was a splendid excursion to Salem, and I went home tired but very glad I went and especially glad I took the boat on the way up.