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The Life Behind Form

Childe Hassam's paintings distill an island locale to its very essence

BEAUTY was once a primary concern in art. Alas, a great many fatuous paintings have been churned out in superficial imitation of the beautiful - in portraits, landscapes and still-lifes. But real beauty has its own truth, and the Childe Hassam exhibition at the Denver Museum of Art reminds the viewer how much the beautiful in art still delights, refreshes, and instructs. ``Childe Hassam: An Island Garden Revisted'' collects the oils, watercolors, and pastels he created on the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast between 1884 and 1916. Frederick Childe Hassam, one of the most important of America's Impressionists, found a rich retreat among the flowers of one Celia Laighton Thaxter's garden and recorded more than just their fragile grace in his art: Hassam recorded the essence of place.

The second group of paintings (made after Celia Thaxter's death in 1894) move out beyond her garden to the craggy cliffs of the island. They are among his very best works - arguably among the best in American landscape painting, though they tend to be of a similar mood.

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Taken together, the pictures offer more about a time and place than any history lesson. Because what the viewer takes away from this exhibition is the very smell of salt air, the quivering glance of sun on sea, the white haze of a hot summer day that turns the sky almost white, almost green, and the many peculiar colors of light special to the place. No mere representation of sun, sea, rocks, and flowers, these pictures, taken as a whole, remind us of the field of facts in which we live.

Some of the paintings hark back to a more dramatic view of man at the center of nature, but the best of them step away from drama, reaching for the essential life behind the form. Some of the seascapes are a brushstroke or two away from absolute abstraction - a thin horizon line with the mere suggestion of a ship or two cutting the sunset's clouded sky from the red-refracting sea.

Celia Thaxter's island inspired many a poet, musician, and painter who came to there to stay in her family's summer resort hotel. Thaxter held informal court among the artistic elite of the period in her unpretentious parlor with her exquisitely arranged flowers - arrangements she labored over for hours daily.

She was herself a poet of considerable reputation in her day, though her poetry has not stood well the test of time. She was Hassam's first mentor.

Thaxter's cultivation of flowers, poetry, music, and painting (and all those who practiced the arts on her island) influenced Hassam his entire life. ``The Room of Flowers'' may be considered an homage to Thaxter, recording as it does an enticing view of her famous parlor. A burst of golden bloom in the foreground diverts the eye from the young lady reclining on the sofa. We could almost miss her among the art and flowers. She might be any young lady. But the atmosphere offering both peace and intellectual stimulus is quite, quite distinct. This is another garden in which art flourishes like the flowers cut to grace it.

The exhibition has been arranged with sensitivity. A Thaxter book, the show's catalog, and a series of post-card sized reproductions with helpful hints about viewing the work lie on wrought-iron tables surrounded by garden chairs. The Denver Botanic Gardens has planted a reproduction of Thaxter's garden, and it's a treat to see the ``weathered'' gray fence and latticed archways encompassing the hollyhocks, roses and other flowers in riotous bloom. The surge of life asserting itself among the green leaves helps the viewer see Hassam's flowers all the more clearly.

The exhibition, which originated at Yale University Art Gallery, runs through Sept. 9 and then moves on to the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington from Oct. 5 to Jan. 6, 1991.

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