Celia – Poet and Painter

Book page inscribed by Celia Thaxter

Book page inscribed by Celia Thaxter and decorated with painting of a pansy; published in One Woman’s Work, The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter, provided courtesy of Peter E. Randall Publisher, Portsmouth New Hampshire

After writing the first blog about Celia Thaxter and her island garden, I immersed myself in the reading of her poetry and learning more about her life as an artist.  I was reminded of the blog post I wrote on women artists in March 2014, in which I mentioned Mary Delany, the British artist famous for her flower mosaicks, another strong female artist I admire.  Although Mrs. Delany lived one hundred years earlier than Thaxter, she held similar beliefs in the role of art in one’s life.  Her biographer, Molly Peacock, writes in The Paper Garden that Mrs. Delany chose to recreate the overwhelming awe that nature can produce.  She discusses the role of painting in Mrs. Delany’s life, indicating that Mrs. Delany painted in the course of the obligations of her day . . .She painted in the context of planning meals, planning travel, planning her garden, and budgeting for her household bills.

As with Mrs. Delany, Thaxter planned her artistic life – writing poetry, painting china and watercolors of the sea surrounding the Shoals, hosting her summer salons – in the context of her daily life.  A young mother of three, she also nursed her own parents when they were ill, travelling back and forth between the Isle of Shoals and and the mainland until she eventually lived full-time on Appledore.  At first her artistic life provided respite while caring for her children; eventually, it became a means to earn funds to support her family.

Thaxter’s first poem, Land-Locked, was published in the March 1861 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.  Having left the island in 1852 upon her marriage to Levi Thaxter, Land-Locked reflects on how much she misses Appledore as well as the close relationship with her mother – Thaxter’s cry to the sea is a call to her mother from her landlocked home off island.  The poem, in its entirety, is shown below:

Black lie the hills; swiftly doth daylight flee;
And, catching gleams of sunset’s dying smile,
Through the dusk land for many a changing mile
The river runneth softly to the sea.

O happy river, could that I could follow thee!
O yearning heart, that never can be still!
O wishful eyes, that watch the steadfast hill,
Longing for level line of solemn sea!

Have patience; here are flowers and songs of birds,
Beauty and fragrance, wealth of sound and sight,
All summer’s glory thine from morn till night,
And life too full of joy for uttered words.

Neither am I ungrateful; but I dream
Deliciously how twilight falls to-night
Over the glimmering water, how the light
Dies blissfully away, until I seem

To feel the wind, sea-scented, on my cheek,
To catch the sound of dusky flapping sail
And dip of oars, and voices on the gale
Afar off, calling low, —my name they speak!

O Earth! Thy summer song of joy may soar
Ringing to heaven in triumph, but I crave
The Sad, caressing murmur of the wave
That breaks in tender music on the shore.

When the poem was first written, Thaxter had sent a copy to her brother Cedric, who responded positively to the poem and encouraged her to continue writing.  It is not documented how the magazine received the poem for publication.  Writing in The Isles of Shoals in Lore and Legend, Lyman Rutledge states that Celia wrote to her parents about the poem’s publication, discussing her surprise upon learning of the publication and the money she had received:

I unfolded and red the following extraordinary document.  Feb 26th – C. T. Watertown, Mass.  We enclose our c’k for $10 in payment for the poem ‘Land-Locked’ in the Atlantic Monthly for the ensuing month.  Yours respectfully, Ticknor and Fields, per J. S. Clark!  I burst into a shout of laughter. . .

After meeting James and Annie Fields in 1863, their friendship provided additional support for her writing.  In the Letters of Celia Thaxter edited by Annie Fields and Rose Lamb, several letters discuss her poetry and James Fields’ response to her poems.  On September 23, 1861 she writes:

I thank you very much for the kind things you have said about my little poem, and am grateful for the trouble you took in looking it over and making suggestions.  I am sorry I could not act upon them all.  I am not good at making alterations.  The only merit of my small productions lies in their straightforward simplicity, and when that bloom is rubbed off by the effort to better them, they lose what little good they originally possessed.

In future letters to Fields she writes I believe, I am afraid, I never can put my heart into anything that does n’t belong to the sea (September 4, 1862).  Writing about the role of poetry in her life, she writes in October 1862:  The rhymes in my head are all that keep me alive, I do believe, lifting me in a half unconscious condition over the ashes heap, so that I don’t half realize how dry and dusty it is! Thaxter was one of Fields’ favorite authors – he published 15 of her poems during his 10 years at The Atlantic Monthly.   After Thaxter published two anthologies of poetry, the first in 1872 and the second in 1874, she received a letter from James Fields, in which he wrote:

Of course I know nearly all the poems well, but now I know them as a book of lyrics…you can now take your place among the Singers high up in the beautiful ranks.  It seems to be that no collection of modern poems can be considered excellent, either in England or at home, without some of your perfect pieces.  I am rejoiced at your success and proud of your assured fame.  You too are a bringer of consolation and beauty into a world which sorely needs all good things.

Poem, The Sandpiper, written and edited by Celia Thaxter

Poem, The Sandpiper, written and edited by Celia Thaxter, published in One Woman’s Work, The Visual Art of Celia Thaxter, provided courtesy Peter E. Randall Publisher, Portsmouth, New Hampshire


Thaxter’s most anthologized poem, Sandpiper, published in 1862, reminiscences on her life on Appledore while combining her love of nature with her spiritual beliefs.  The first and last stanzas of this poem are shown below:

Across the narrow beach we flit,
One little sandpiper and I
And fast I gather, bit by bit,
The scattered driftwood bleached and dry.
The wild waves reach their hands for it,
The wild wind raves, the tide runs high,
As up and down the beach we flit, —
One little sandpiper and I.
. . .
Comrade, where wilt though be to-night
When the loosed storm breaks furiously?
My driftwood fire will burn so bright!
To what warm shelter canst thou fly?
I do not fear for thee, though wroth
The tempest rushes through the sky;
For are we not God’s children both,
Thou, little sandpiper, and I?

19th century periodicals

19th century periodicals in which Celia Thaxter’s poetry, articles, and stories were published. Image published in One Woman’s Work, The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter, provided courtesy of Peter E. Randall Publisher, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Cover, ONe Woman's Work, The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter, written by Sharon Paiva Stephan

Cover, ONe Woman’s Work, The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter, written by Sharon Paiva Stephan

Sharon Paiva Stephan, author of One Woman’s Work, The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter, raises the issue of the role of literary tradition and its impact on Thaxter’s writing.   Many issues influenced her writing style – she was raised in a lighthouse with nature as her playmate; she was privately tutored by a Boston Brahmin, who would eventually become her husband; and she entered the literary field at a time when women had very few legal rights or avenues of expression.  Regardless, her poetry was received well, indicating that her style and subject was familiar to the reading public, allowing her to explore new themes and styles as her popularity increased.  She also wrote poetry specifically geared towards children along with stories for that audience, both of which were published in the monthly periodicals popular at the time, such as those depicted below.  Several stories were based on her most popular poems.   The Spray Sprite, published on Our Young Folks, 1869, tells the tale of a young girl living by the sea:

It was bliss to her to watch that great sea, to hear its sweet or awful voices, to feel the salt wind lift her thick brown hair and kiss her cheek, to wade, barefooted, into the singing, sparkling brine . . . it was so splendid to stand on the rocks when the billows came tumbling in, sending the spray flying high in the air . . . And blissful it was to run with the sandpipers along the edge of the shallow waves on the little beach . . .

Writing at the time of John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Lucy Larcom, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Thaxter’s poetry did not reflect the Christian beliefs of these poets.  Norma Mandel writes in Beyond the Garden Gate, The Life of Celia Laighton Thaxter, that Thaxter’s religion was grounded in nature, spiritualism, and Eastern beliefs.  Although many poets of the time envisioned their poems being read by families at night by the fire, Thaxter envisioned herself performing her poetry, which she did daily during her summer salons on Appledore.   In An Island Garden Revisited, David Curry writes about Thaxter’s poetry performances, quoting Van Wyck Brooks, a literary critic who wrote about 19th century poets:

. . . to hear Mrs. Thaxter read her poems, in the long, light, airy room. . .Eastward lay the open sea, and westward, as the sun poured in, one saw the peaks rising, a hundred miles away.  Celia Thaxter’s poems were literary water-colours  . . .graceful, touching, fragile, evanescent.

As her popularity increased, Thaxter’s interest in writing waned.  She continued to write to support her family but it did not fulfill her aesthetic sense so she turned her attention to painting.  She writes to a friend on September 22, 1874:

I have taken to painting, —”wrestling with art,´I call it in the wildest manner?. . .I want to paint everything I see; every leaf, stem, seed vessel, grass blade, rush, and reed and flower has new charms, and I thought I knew them all before.  Such a new world opens, for I feel it in me; I know I can do it, and I am going to do it! What a resource for the dreary winter days to come!

Vase painted by Celia Thaxter, verse by William Shakespeare

Vase painted by Celia Thaxter, verse from The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, published in One Woman’s Work, The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter, provided courtesy of Peter E. Randall Publisher, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Cover, In Pursuit of Beauty, Americans and The Aesthetic Movement

Cover, In Pursuit of Beauty, Americans and The Aesthetic Movement

Thaxter’s success in her writing and painting owes much to the Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th century.  In the fall of 1986 an exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, In Pursuit of Beauty, Americans and the Aesthetic Movement, in which the impact of the aesthetic movement in America was explored.  This movement, arriving in America in the wake of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, emphasized the role of art as well as function in the production of books, furniture, textiles, wallpaper, etc.  Highlighting the role of art in the domestic environment, the movement created an interest in collecting art as well as creating it.  It also provided the opportunity for women to participate in areas in which they had previously been excluded.  (One of Thaxter’s bowls was included in the exhibition, shown on page 33 of catalog, available online)

Writing in Beyond the Garden Gate, Mandell states that the Aesthetic Movement allowed Thaxter to bend (but not break some of the bonds of home and motherhood. She was able to earn extra money for herself and her family while remaining within the bounds of propriety and without violating any of the rules of domesticity.  Although she had become independent from her husband and benefited financially from her writing and artistic efforts, she did not become a public figure outside her sheltered New England world.  By choosing a way of life that was both conforming and non-traditional, Thaxter showed that she recognized her limitations.  Her success was established and allowed to develop because she was not viewed as moving beyond her social standing.  Thaxter’s summer salon on Appledore encouraged authors, musicians, and painters to interact with each other, perform for/with each other, and served as a support network for Thaxter as well as creating relationships to further her own creative endeavors.

In her introduction to Letters of Celia Thaxter, Annie Fields writes:

Artists who sang to her, or those who rehearsed the finest music on the piano or violin or flute, or those who brought their pictures and put them before her while she listened, – they alone . . .understood what these things signified, and how she was lifted quite away by them from the ordinary level of life.  They were inspired to do for her what they could seldom do for any other creature . . .

Sunset Song, words by Celia Thaxter, music by Julius Eichberg

Sunset Song, words by Celia Thaxter, music by Julius Eichberg, printed in the February 1877 issue of The American Monthly

Julius Eichberg, a well-known violinist, was one of the musicians who visited Appledore regularly.  Writing to Mrs. Elizabeth Pierce, September 29, 1874, Thaxter writes about her painting and the fact that Eichberg had set her poems to music:

I must tell you something nice.  I have begun to draw and paint, and find I can do it, even without lessons, with more or less success, so that I am sure that by and by, after I have had some lessons, I can do it well.  It is so delightful!  I want to paint everything I see.  It will be such a resource in winter loneliness to come, for I expect to spend the greater part of the winter here . . . I am so glad you like the little song.  If only you could hear the music!  It is delicious; and I have just written one called “Foreboding,” which Mr.  Eichberg has also set to music, and which he says is the best thing he has every composed, which, considering the beautiful things he has done, is saying a great deal.

The Island Garden, painted by Childe Hassam, 1892

The Island Garden, painted by Childe Hassam, 1892, watercolor 18.4 x 154 inches; courtesy of The National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, http://americanart.si.edu/

Although sunflowers were the symbol of the Aesthetic Movement, poppies were also used, one of Thaxter’s favorite flowers.  Thew was also the flower most painted by Childe Hassam during his visits to Appledore, as shown by his painting An Island Garden, painted in 1892. Thaxter painted poppies when she illustrated copies of her books as gifts for friends.  David Curry, in Childe Hassam, An Island Garden Revisited, writes that Thaxter wrote to her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, specifically requesting that the paper used for her books would withstand her paintings — Will you be kind enough to put in a word about the selection of the paper on which [my poems] are printed, that it shall be firm enough to take kindly the water-colors with which I illustrate the volumes.  

Celia Thaxter poem, Schubert, decorated with painted poppy

Celia Thaxter poem, Schubert, decorated with painted poppy published in One Woman’s Work, The Visual Art of Celia Thaxter, provided courtesy of Peter E. Randall Publisher, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

As noted earlier, Thaxter began painting in earnest in 1874 – according to Norma Mandel, she used her knowledge of nature, filling her sketchbooks carefully reproducing her favorite poppies, scarlet pimpernels, and other garden flowers.  As she became more skillful, she used Japanese motifs in her painting.   Thaxter was known to carry a magnifying glass with her so that she could create more detail as she drew in her sketchbooks.

Two pages from Celia Thaxter's sketchbooks

Two pages from Celia Thaxter’s sketchbooks: left, painting of pepperberry, right painting of violets; published in One Woman’s Work, The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter, provided courtesy of Peter E. Randall Publisher, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

In the winter of 1877, she began lessons to paint on china with J. Appleton Brown.  Writing to her friend, Annie Fields, Thaxter writes about the items she has painted:   Plates, tinted just pale sea-green, and a Japanese lady . . . in the middle of each, with birds, or butterflies or bats or turtles, swallows, dragon-flies, lizards, beetles, any and everything on the border, with flowers and grasses or leaves, all copied from the Japanese.

In 1880 she traveled to Europe with her brother providing additional time and subjects to fill her sketchbooks.  Her visit to Italy inspired her to use olives and olive branches, using deep purple for the fruit and varied tones of green for the leaves.  Writing to Fields in 1881, Thaxter states: Yesterday I was able to paint an olive pitcher for Mr. Ware, and he sent me such a beautiful inscription in Greek to put on it . . .Mr. Thaxter and Roland hunted up the ancient Greek letters for me (the quotation came from Oedipus Colonos).  The quote was from Sophocles, which meant:  watched by the eye of olive-guarding and by gray-eyed Athena.  The item displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, In Pursuit of Beauty,uses this combination of olive leaves and Greek letters.

Greek phrase painted on china by Celia Thaxter

Greek phrase painted on china by Celia Thaxter; printed in One Woman’s Work, The Visual Life of Celia Laighton Thaxter, provided courtesy of Peter E. Randall Publisher, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Thaxter credits J. Appleton Brown with helping her learn to paint on this medium and, in 1889, she wrote a sonnet in appreciation, To a Painter (J. A. B.):

Poet, whose golden songs in silence sung
Thrill from the canvas to the hearts of men, —
Sweet harmonies that speak without a tongue,
Melodious numbers writ without a pen, —
The great gods gifted thee and hold thee dear;
Placed in thy hand the torch where genius lit,
Touched thee with genial sunshine, nd good cheer,
And swift heat lightnings of a charming wit
Whose shafts are ever harmless, though so bright;
Gave thee of all life’s blessing this, the best, —
The true love of thy kind, —for thy delight.
So be thou happy, poet-painter blest,
Whose gentle eyes look out, all unaware,
Beneath the brow of Keats, soft-crowned with shadowy hair.

Celia's Garden painted by J. Appleton Brown

Celia’s Garden painted by J. Appleton Brown; pastel, 14″ x 17 1/2″, courtesy Cooley Gallery, Old Lyme, Connecticut

Writing to Annie Fields in August of 1877, Thaxter had expressed her appreciation of a painting created by J. Appleton Brown, of a view of her garden facing the sea:

Oh, but I must not forget Appleton Brown.  He has painted a picture of my little garden, sitting in one corner looking across through the fence at the sparkling, tranquil afternoon sea, —looking across a mystic tangle of straggling green, all spangled and sprinkled with stars of gold and purple and scarlet, to a mass of cloud-white phlox and the tall black larkspur spikes gone to seed, tall indeed against the sunlit sky; . . .And the picture is exquisite, brimful of sentiment and beauty.

Isles of Shaols, Moonlight, 1890, painted by Childe Hassam

Isles of Shaols, Moonlight, 1890, painted by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 12.75″ x 9.5″

Similarly, as indicated by my earlier blog about her,Thaxter supported the work created by Childe Hassam, honoring him with a poem as well, based on his paintings of moonlight as viewed from Appledore. Moonlight (Picture by Childe Hassam) reads:

The salutation of the moonlit air,
Night’s dewy breath, the fraance of the brine,
The waste of moving waters everywhere,
The whispering of waves, — a hush divine, —
Leagues of soft murmuring dusk to the sea’s rim,
The infinite, illimitable sky,
Wherein the great orb of the moon on high
In stillness down the quiet deeps doth swim:
Behold the awful beauty of the night,
The solemn tenderness, the peace profound,
The mystery, — God’s glory in the light
And darkness both, — his voice in every sound!
Be silent and behold where hand in hand
Great Nautre and great Art together stand!

Two pages from Ross Sterling Turner Scrapbook, Volume II

Two pages from Ross Sterling Turner Scrapbook, Volume II: Page 111 and Page 115. Page 111, left, includes a water color and pencil sketch created by artist friends of Turner, C. J. Forbes and Courrier; Page 115 on the right includes letters from Celia Thaxter, which she signed as Grandmother

Thaxter also developed a close relationship with Ross Sterling Turner after her painting and drawing lessons with him, which began in 1877 and resumed again in 1885.  Much younger than she, Thaxter addressed Turner as Grandson in the salutation of her letters to him.  The Phillips Library is holds two scrapbooks kept by Turner, one of which includes several sketches and small paintings; the other includes sketches and artwork used as inspiration, along with numerous letters about his art shows, sale of paintings, and the many letters he exchanged with Thaxter.  Thaxter would share her poems, write about her family, and provide advice to him about his career.  In March of 1888 she writes,  . . .you must not forget to bring frames and mats and have one of your pictures always for sale in my room, on the easel, and others beside.  That is the place where they will sell best, because so many eyes will see them. . .

The Shoals painted by Ross Sterling Turner, 1887

The Shoals painted by Ross Sterling Turner, 1887; watercolor, 12.5″ by 19″, signed in bottom left corner; image courtesy of The Banks Gallery, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Mary Delany created ten volumes of her flower mosaicks.  Molly Peacock writes that Delany included a poem in the front of the first volume that served as a manifesto as to why she chose to recreate the overwhelming awe that nature can produce.  The poem reads:

Hail to the happy hour! When fancy led
My pensive mind this flow’ry path to tread;
And gave me emulation to presume
With timid art to trace fair Nature’s bloom:
To view with awe the great Creative power
That shines confess’d in the minutest flower;
With wonder to pursue the glorious line,
And gratefully adore the Head Divine!

I can only imagine the conversations that Thaxter and Mrs. Delany would have had they both lived at the same time and shared their love of nature and artistic endeavors.  They would have supported each other’s talents and created a supportive atmosphere for themselves and other artists.

One Comment

  1. Amy Dryansky says:

    This was a great read about a fascinating woman and artist. Do you also know the wonderful book of poems by Annie Boutelle about Thaxter? “Becoming Bone?” http://www.amazon.com/Becoming-Bone-Poems-Celia-Thaxter/dp/155728797X

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