Wednesday, August 31, 2016

CELIA'S SALON: Celia Thaxter's Art Colony Exhibit at the Salem Atheneaum: Review by Polly Guerin

Celia Thaxter in her Appeldore Island Garden
Celia Thaxter, the celebrated American poet and champion of Appeldore Island, attracted the cultural cognoscenti of the 19th century and established  the first American Artists and Writers Colony in America.      
     Celia's Appeldore garden, tended by Celia with loving care on the treeless island, was often painted by her guests. In her cottage parlor, next to her family's resort hotel you might meet the artists who occupied rooms in her cottage including Childe Hassam. J. Appleton Brown and Ellen Robbins. They, too, created images of lasting beauty. Image: Childe Hassam's painting of Celia's garden in the spotted impressionistic style.
      Today there appears to be a resurgence of interest in Celia Thaxter and THE SALEM ATHENAEUM, for one, is raising the bar of interest with a breathtaking exhibition entitled, CELIA'S SALON. 2016, through September 23. On display is a treasure trove of rare books and personal correspondence, art, and family photographs and memorabilia. The exhibition invites you to scrutinize these museum quality artifacts and vicariously become part of Celia's celebrated arts colony and writers circle.
Celia Thaxter's Cottage on Appeldore 
The curator Elaine von Bruns has painstakingly culled the Celia documents and artifacts from The Salem Athenaeum's archives producing in the process a multi-dimensional exhibit that includes intimate pictures of Appeldore's landscape and visitors. With celebrity status came Celia Thaxter's advertisement endorsements including her picture on cigar box covers and, in another case, endorsement of the Thaxter typewriter.  

    Several illustrated brochures are offered for the taking including "An Artistic Escapade" by Oscar Leighton, Celia's brother. In another brochure,  "Memories of a Young Guest" by Maude A. McDowell wrote, "It was my privilege as a young girl to be for several summers in the cottage of Celia Thaxter the poet, on Appledore."
     Celia showed the power of her pen when she wrote against the bird-wearing hat fashions of the time, Woman's Heartlessness in the February 1887 issue of Audubon Magazine, "We trust yet to see one day when women, one and all, will look upon wearing of birds it its proper light, namely as a sign of heartlessness and a mark of ignominy and reproach."
    The exhibit introduces the visitor to the famous artistic and literary individuals who were visitors to Celia's Salon.  Childe Hassam was a frequent visitor of some 30 years and erected a studio on a plot of land that he purchased from one of Celia's brothers.  On view are Hassam's favorite subject Celia's garden and paintings of the windswept gorges and boulders of Appledore.  Other luminaries introduced in the exhibit include John Greenleaf Whittier, Quaker poet and close friend of Celia and her circle as well as William Morris Hunt, esteemed Boston artist and friend of Celia's husband Levi Thaxter. Ross Sterling Turner was,"Famous for his charming sketches of our boats," wrote Celia's brother, Oscar Laighton, in 90 Years on the Isles of Shoals, 1929.
    You will learn about Celia's friendship with Robert Browning and the literary and artistic luminaries of the day, enjoying an informal evening concert by the composer Edward MacDowell, who frequently visited Appeldore with his wife who founded the MacDowell Colony in his honor. The Norwegian violinist Ole Bull might entertain as did many other musicians contribute to the conviviality of Celia's circle. At evening readings, on occasion, Celia would recite poetry and perhaps even be coaxed to read her account of the fearsome murders on Smutty Nose Island.
One Woman's Work by
Celia found time to paint and like other women of her time it was a woman's work, a way to earn a living, though modest it provided necessary income. Her exquisite renderings of island flora and fauna are some of the most beautiful examples on her plates and vases also on display.  Among the books of particular note is the quintessential Celia Thaxter reader, An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter with illustrations by Childe Hassam.

    Several other books on view of note include One Woman's Work, The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter,  by Sharon Paiva Stephan, a visual feast of Celia's hand-illustrated-books, watercolors and painted china.
    THE SALEM ATHENAEUM, the historic private library shares a common mission with Celia Thaxter: to encourage creativity and share literature, music, and art.  In the summers, like Celia, the Athenaeum enjoys a lovely garden and Friday salons. Find them at 337 Essex Street, Salem, MA. Tel: 978.744.2540.
Coincidentally, PEM, the Peabody Essex Museum's exhibition American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals runs through November 6.

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