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Isles of Shoals

John Appleton Brown
How Do We Date a Painting?

The Isles of Shoals is a small group of rugged, barren islands off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine, about ten miles from Portsmouth harbor and the mouth of the Piscataqua River. The islands have been home to fishermen, tourists, and summer residents, and most recently, religious retreats and scientists. This was the home of Celia Thaxter who was a well-known poet and writer and whose family owned the large Appledore House, an inn on the island. Best known for her work about the sea, her many poems and books of prose about the Isles of Shoals are still in print today. Thaxter established the Isles of Shoals as a musicians’ and artists’ colony that attracted well-known visitors. Thaxter’s literary fame and Boston connections provided the ideal public relations tool to attract artists to the islands. Among those drawn to both Thaxter and the beauty of the area were Harriet Beecher Stowe, Richard Henry Dana, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Childe Hassam (link to Currier watercolor painting Newfields, New Hampshire.)

During the 19 th century, the Isles of Shoals became one of New England’s most popular summer resorts.

Isles of Shoals Artists

John Appleton Brown (1844-1902) ranks among the forerunners of American Impressionism, though he is not as well known as Frank Benson, Childe Hassam or Edmund Tarbell. Born in Newburyport, MA, Brown became known for his quietly cheerful landscapes that critics compared to the work of the French Barbizon master, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875). Apple orchards in bloom were among Brown’s favorite subjects, earning him the nickname “Appleblossom Brown.”

Brown met poet Celia Thaxter while Brown was studying porcelain painting in Boston in 1877. The two soon became good friends, and Brown found himself a frequent guest of the Thaxters at their island inn. Brown was inspired by Thaxter’s flower gardens, and his paintings and pastels of this subject are today regarded among his best work.

The Currier’s View from Celia Thaxter’s Veranda, Appledore, Isles of Shoals, displays the beauty and comfort of the Thaxter inn, evoking the themes of leisure and recreation. Here, with the plein-air palette of Impressionism, he became one of the first American painters to experiment with this new French style of painting. In contrast to the stillness of the Barbizon painting, Brown now infused his work with a momentary quality, a sense of fleeting movement.

In the painting, the viewer looks across a narrow strip of greenery, over a low picket fence and beyond to a vista of sunlit water and rocky islets. The decking and empty chair seems to welcome the viewer, reinforcing his or her status as a privileged guest. A cloud-filled sky, windblown leaves and passing ships fill the figure-less composition, suggesting life and movement.

How Do We Date a Painting?

Painted around 1880, View from Celia Thaxter’s Veranda is an early example of Impressionism in the United States. The early date is supported both by material and visual evidence. The painting’s original stretcher carried the label of the Boston art supply shop of A.A. Walker, located at 594 Washington Street. City directories indicate that A.A. Walker occupied this address between 1877 and 1880, after which the firm moved to 538 Washington Street. While it is certainly possible that Brown may have painted on this canvas after 1880, later photographs of Thaxter’s garden show more extensive development than Brown’s painting. The photographs reveal that the picket fence was replaced by a higher board fence at some point in time.

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John Appleton Brown, View from Celia Thaxter's Veranda, Appledore, Isles of Shoals, circa 1880
John Appleton Brown, View from Celia Thaxter’s Veranda, Appledore, Isles of Shoals, c. 1880
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