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Celia Thaxter, Artist

Vase with painted decoration by Celia Thaxter, 1880–87. The Greek inscription is from Sophocles.

Celia Thaxter, c.1880–82.

One Woman’s Work: The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter. SPNEA’s Gallery, One Bowdoin Square, Boston. Weekdays, 10 am – 4 pm, October 15 through April 12, 2002. Free.

This exhibition focuses on the artistic work of poet and essayist Celia Thaxter and includes examples of her painted china, her paint box and brushes, and reproductions of her watercolors and original book illustrations. The show was organized by the Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, N.H., and the Isles of Shoals Historic and Research Association, with support from the Greater Piscataqua Community Foundation and the Rosamond Thaxter Foundation.

The years following the Centennial Exhibition in Philadephia in 1876 saw a coming together of literature, art, and craft. A more fluid and affluent society permitted women greater freedom of expression and allowed them outlets in painting, writing, and gardening; a few women even found it possible to earn a living in the arts. No one better exemplified the trend than Celia Laighton Thaxter (1835–94), writer, artist, gardener, and central figure amid a group of writers, artists, and musicians in a summer colony on Appledore Island, New Hampshire.

Thaxter spent her childhood among the Isles of Shoals, a group of rocky, windswept islets off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and later served as hostess at her parents’ resort hotel on Appledore Island. There, her cottage became an informal, flower-filled salon for favored hotel guests, including such luminaries as John Greenleaf Whittier, Richard Watson Gilder, William Dean Howells, Sarah Orne Jewett, J. Appleton Brown, Ross Turner, John Knowles Paine, William Morris Hunt, and Childe Hassam.

Perennially strapped for funds, Thaxter turned to china painting to supplement her income. Painting on purchased undecorated ceramics had become enormously popular; women took to the craft, copying from some of the myriad pattern books available, or as in Thaxter’s case, using their own designs. Thaxter herself was a meticulous observer of nature. Presumably, she based the olive branch on this vase on a sketch she had made during a visit to Italy. She used the same pattern on numerous wares as well as on a greeting card that she designed for the Boston printer and publisher Louis Prang.

—Adria Bernier, Assistant Registrar

Celia Thaxter, Artist