Published: July 27, 2004
Childe Hassam, America’s most popular, successful and perhaps most prolific Impressionist artist, is the subject of this large, superb retrospective. It should be the highlight exhibition of the year for aficionados of American Impressionist art.
One of the first Americans to embrace Impressionism, Hassam (1859-1935) became a favorite chronicler of the streets of New York City and of the rural charms of New England. His brilliant and appealing depictions, filled with sunshine, light and atmosphere, were enlivened with the artist’s high-keyed palette and optimistic approach to modern life.
“He is America’s favorite Impressionist,” says Morrison H. Heckscher, chairman of the American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “because he painted what we love.”
“Childe Hassam, American Impressionist,” was organized by H. Barbara Weinberg and Alice Pratt Brown, curators of American paintings and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum, where it is on view through September 12. There are more than 120 oil paintings, watercolors and pastels and about 20 prints in the exhibition.
Born in Dorchester (now part of Boston), Mass., Hassam came from old line New England stock on both sides of his family. As Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, observes in her catalog essay on the artist’s pride in his ancestry, “Hassam grew up surrounded by the Puritan past in [historic] Dorchester.” Those Puritan links stimulated his lifelong interest in a variety of New England subjects, especially those evoking the past, present and future.
Initially named Frederick Childe Hassam, the future artist started his career as Fred C. Hassam, but later, at the suggestion of his friend and muse Celia Thaxter, dropped that prosaic moniker in favor of the more exotic and marketable Childe Hassam.
His father was a cutlery merchant, whose collection of Americana helped fuel his son’s interest in Yankee material culture. Hassam had an unusually happy youth, although after his father lost his business, he dropped out of school and became an engraver’s assistant, 1878-1881.
He took up freelance illustrating and created watercolors, but had little formal training. His exposure to anatomy and direction was brief, helping to explain the awkwardness of his rendering of figures throughout his career.
Following a trip to Europe in 1884, he married Kathleen Maud Doane. The couple settled in Boston’s newly expanded South and Hassam went to work.
In line with his interest in recording modern life, he executed a number of evocative Boston street scenes, such as the panoramic “Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston,” 1885, and the snowy “Boston Common at Twilight,” 1885-86. Remarkably well done, they reflect the young painter’s ability to capture the feel of the urban setting in various kinds of weather, and his interest in depicting well-dressed residents enjoying their surroundings. “I was always interested in the movements of humanity in the street,” Hassam said.
In 1886, having begun to establish a reputation in Boston, Hassam – at the age of 27 – and his wife spent three years in Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian. He hobnobbed with other American artists and was turned on by exposure to the colorful, vibrant style that became known as Impressionism.
His early views of rainy days in the City of Light, like “April Showers, Champs-Élysées, Paris,” 1888, are reminiscent of the damp yet cheerful outlook of his Boston streetscapes. By contrast, in “Grand Prix Day,” 1887, Hassam employed flecked brushwork and an intense Impressionist palette to capture the joyous, sun-drenched spectacle of equipages preparing for the procession to the Bois de Boulogne for the famous international horse race.
During summer visits to friends on an estate outside Paris, Hassam painted color-filled garden scenes, such as the young maid watering flowers amidst rows of bright red potted geraniums in “After Breakfast,” 1887. The even more brilliantly hued “Geraniums,” 1888-89, shows his wife seated sewing, her head encircled by rows of bright red, potted blooms. These lovely canvases signal Hassam’s mastery of Impressionism.
Returning to the States, Hassam chose to settle in New York, which offered greater potential for commercial success and varied subjects for art. He found the dynamic city, overflowing with the contemporary life he wanted to record, an ideal inspiration for the high-keyed palette, short brushstrokes and brilliant effects of color and atmosphere he had developed in France.
Hassam continued to build his reputation with his new views of the Big Apple; they attracted public and critical acclaim. Stocky, with a bronzed complexion reflecting his love of the outdoors, he was active in art groups, established friendships with many fellow artists and helped found the Ten American Painters in 1897.
Some of his earliest work depicted Manhattan in winter. Utilizing an elevated perspective, he showed bundled-up pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages and the stoops of buildings lining New York’s “Champs-Élysées,” set off by the snowy landscape, in “Fifth Avenue in Winter,” circa 1890. Other paintings from a bird’s-eye view helped Hassam emphasize the tall buildings that were becoming associated with the burgeoning metropolis, whether around Union Square or along Fifth Avenue and Broadway.
One permanent feature in a city in transition was immortalized by Hassam in his sun-filled “Washington Arch, Spring,” circa 1893, in which elegantly garbed pedestrians and horse-drawn cabs confirm the continuing attraction of this Greenwich Village landmark. This particularly appealing canvas, which art historian William H. Gerdts has written “reveals Hassam at the height of his powers,” is owned by The Phillips Collection.
The city in the grip of change is exemplified by the artist’s oil painting “The Manhattan Club (The Stewart Mansion), ” circa 1891, in which the mammoth marble mansion built by dry-goods magnate A.T. Stewart forms the architectural backdrop. By the time the scene was painted, the house had been leased to wealthy members of the Democratic party. That explains the fashionably garbed men and women strolling in the area, contrasting with the shabbily-dressed newsboy – a favorite Hassam stock figure – in the foreground.
In an inspired move, curator Weinberg has placed roughly contemporary photographs next to settings as painted by Hassam. Thus a circa 1889 photo of the Stewart Mansion, which was razed in 1903, helps document the accuracy of the artist’s depiction.
For three decades, beginning in 1890, Hassam spent summers visiting picturesque New England towns and islands, inspiring some of the most beautiful images of his career. As independent scholar Susan G. Larkin observes in her thorough and informative chapter on Hassam’s regional excursions, his work “expressed and promoted prevailing cultural values, especially the widely shared conviction that New England represented the essence of America.”
At least 23 paintings, pastels and watercolors in the show, dated from 1886 to 1913, document Hassam’s glorious oeuvre on Appledore Island, in the Isles of Shoals off the Maine-New Hampshire coast. They are, says Gerdts, “arguably the most beautiful [works] of his entire career.”
Developed as an island resort – replete with a large hotel – by the family of Celia Leighton Thaxter, Appledore was a magnet for artists, musicians and writers starting toward the end of the Nineteenth Century. In addition to breathtaking views, a major attraction was the presence of the charismatic Thaxter, famed for the effulgent garden adjacent to her cottage and her role as a salon hostess in her parlor. She was, moreover, a fine writer and china painter in her own right.
A highlight of the retrospective is the exuberantly painted “The Room of Flowers,” 1894, in which a profusion of sun-drenched flowers, books and pictures nearly obscure a young, reclining woman reading a book in the right foreground. This view of Thaxter’s parlor, where she conducted her celebrated musicales and readings for chosen guests, is privately owned and rarely seen in public. It has a special beauty, as does a colorful watercolor, “The Altar and Shrine,” 1892, overflowing with flower-filled vases and works by artist-guests that were for sale in a corner of the parlor.
The flowers came from the wild, informal garden that Thaxter lovingly nurtured beside her cottage. This gloriously hued, windswept plot was the subject of a classic how-to book by Thaxter, An Island Garden, 1894, illustrated by Hassam with 22 magnificent watercolors. Among the standouts on view are views of the gardener among her colorful blooms in “The Garden in its Glory,” 1892, and “In the Garden (Celia Thaxter in Her Garden),” 1892. Hassam also created memorable views looking from the luxurious garden to shoreline rocks and the ocean.
Hassam was also drawn to the drama of the island’s rugged coastline and the churning blue and white ocean surrounding it. Perhaps inspired by the rocks and sea paintings that Winslow Homer was executing in nearby Prout’s Neck, Hassam offered, as Larkin puts it, “a sparkling tapestry of benign rocks, water and sky.”
In the memorable “The South Ledges, Appledore,” 1913, a slender young woman in white adjusts her wide-brimmed hat with a gloved hand, as she perches on chalky cliffs that blend with her costume and contrast with the blue sea beyond. This oil is a jewel in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Hassam also created a series of nearly abstract, spacious, bird’s-eye views looking across the ocean, dotted with a distant sailboat or two and an even more distant shore. Standouts include “The West Wind, Isles of Shoals,” 1904, and especially the intensely hued “Sunset at Sea,” 1911, with its flat bands of decorative color reminiscent of the seascapes of James McNeill Whistler. These are among the most beautiful oceanscapes ever painted by an American.
During other sojourns around New England, Hassam conveyed a distinctive sense of place, particularly in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He made frequent visits to Cos Cob, the waterfront section of Greenwich. There he stayed at the Holley House, a rambling old saltbox overlooking the harbor that was a gathering spot for artists, musicians and writers.
He turned out numerous engaging paintings, pastels and etchings of the outside of the venerable boarding house, such as “Summer at Cos Cob,” 1902, and inside, with his wife posing for “Morning Light,” 1914. “Oyster Sloop, Cos Cob,” 1902, offered a view of a working portion of the small harbor.
Hassam’s friendship with accomplished printmaker Kerr Eby, who maintained a press in his Cos Cob studio, inspired him to return to etching, with outstanding results for the rest of his career.
Today, the Bush-Holley House is a well-preserved museum operated by the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, and an interesting place to visit. It is the site of a special exhibition, “Childe Hassam: Impressions of Cos Cob,” on view through September 5.
After the turn of the century, Hassam’s charismatic personality and colorful art during stays at Miss Florence Griswold’s mansion-turned-boarding house in Old Lyme, Conn., converted that art community from Barbizon to Impressionism. In his studio near the Lieutenant River he painted sunny views of the old bridge over the river, flowering trees and genteel interior figurative works, like “Twenty-sixth of June, Old Lyme,” 1912. This canvas shows his wife on her 50th birthday, outfitted in a blue and white tea gown standing beside a vase of laurel, Connecticut’s official flower.
Hassam made seven oils, watercolors and prints of the stately white First Congregational Church, a bastion of piety and tradition in Old Lyme dating to 1817. Two splendid oils on view, both titled “Church at Old Lyme,” are owned by the Albright-Knox Gallery, 1905, and Parrish Art Museum, 1906. They verify art curator Erica E. Hirshler’s comment that “Hassam rejoiced in depicting architecture.”
Today, the carefully maintained Florence Griswold Museum, with adjacent galleries filled with outstanding Connecticut art, several by Hassam, is a must-see for all American art fans. “‘A Pretty Fine Old Town’: Childe Hassam in Old Lyme,” is up through September 26.
The third complementary exhibition in the Nutmeg State, “Childe Hassam and Connecticut Impressionism,” is at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, through October 2.
Between 1880 and 1919, Hassam often visited Gloucester, Mass., where he painted panoramic views of the active harbor, filled with color and sunlight, and a magical depiction of the 1806 white Universalist meeting house, glimpsed down an allée of tall elms, with its Paul Revere bell visible in the cropped steeple. Like his other New England works, these images were highly popular, moving one observer to remark, “Before I had seen Hassam’s pictures, [Gloucester] seemed a fishy little city, now as I pass through it I feel Hassam.”
Larkin is on the mark when she writes, “For most of his long career the varied seaports and villages of the New England coast inspired some of his most compelling images and shaped the enduring vision of the region as quintessential America.”
Manhattan remained Hassam’s home base until 1919, although this avowed advocate of painting contemporary life seemed threatened by the city’s fast-paced modernity, epitomized by omnipotent construction projects, looming skyscrapers and streets clogged with automobiles and trolley cars. Continuing to ignore the harsh realities of urban living, he concentrated on meditative, poetic canvases of busy thoroughfares, often portrayed in a hazy, romanticized style.
In a view presumably painted from his studio at 27 West 67th Street, “The Hovel and the Skyscraper,” 1904, Hassam glossed over construction activities in the foreground, drawing the viewer’s eye to the Sheepfold (now Tavern on the Green) and the expanse of tree-topped Central Park, with tall buildings on the horizon.
In works like “The New York Window,” 1912, Hassam retreated from the hustle-and-bustle of the city to show fashionably gowned ladies in high-rise apartments, silhouetted against curtained windows through which skyscrapers can be glimpsed.
During a visit to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Hassam made several images of the lively fairgrounds, and a wonderfully romantic cityscape, the Whistlerian watercolor “Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago,” 1893. This treat for the eyes and others in the medium underscore the accuracy of critic Albert Gallatin’s comment in 1922 that Hassam had earned “an undisputed place with the masters of American watercolor.”
For many, the high point of the retrospective will be the seven dazzling examples of Hassam’s nearly 30 canvases, painted in response to World War I, of Fifth Avenue and adjacent streets lined with tall buildings festooned with nationalistic displays of American and allied flags, banners and bunting. Of these color-filled compelling flag paintings, particularly memorable are “The Fourth of July, 1916 (The Greatest Display of the American Flag Ever Seen in New York, Climax of the Preparedness Parade in May),” 1916, “Flags on the Waldorf, 1916,” 1916, and arguably the most famous, “Allies Day, May 1917,” 1917, from the National Gallery of Art.
Increasingly disenchanted with the congestion, pace and materialism of New York City and, indeed, with the onset of modern art, in 1919 Hassam purchased a shingled saltbox, called Willow Bend, on Egypt Lane in Long Island’s quaint and historic East Hampton. Thereafter, he devoted most of his art to country life.
“The reasons he was drawn to East Hampton are clear,” according to Weinberg. “It was a beautiful village that had long combined summer social life with art, and it was filled with old houses, handsome gardens, nautical relics and interesting wild flora.” Moreover, observes Broun, “On Long Island he finally found the special qualities he cherished in Dorchester memories… [It] was as close as he would come to going home again.”
When he died in 1935, at the age of 75, Hassam was acclaimed for his art and contributions to the art community. His gift to the American Academy of Arts and Letters of some 500 works, to be sold with proceeds used to purchase artwork by Americans and Canadians for presentation to American and Canadian museums, was typical of the man. It was, says Gerdts, “a legacy bespeaking the generosity of spirit that Hassam’s exuberant art so engagingly demonstrates.”
All in all, the Met retrospective constitutes an excellent overview of the achievements of one of the greats of American art. The exhibition catalog is 425 pages, with 244 color reproductions and 130 black and white illustrations; it includes a chronology of the artist’s life and exhibition record.
An impressive group of Hassam authorities, including Broun, Kathleen M. Burnside, Hirshler, Larkin, Carol Troyen and Weinberg (who wrote five of the seven chapters on the artist’s career) examines all facets of his life and work. Published by the Met and distributed by Yale University Press, this book sells for $65 hardcover and $45 softcover.
Many of the works in the Hassam retrospective are from the Met’s own collection. Further demonstrating the breadth and quality of the museum’s holdings is a lovely complementary exhibition, “American Impressions, 1865-1915: Prints, Drawings and Watercolors from the Collection.” Works by the likes of Mary Cassatt, Homer, Maurice Prendergast, J. Alden Weir and Whistler place Hassam in a broader context and magnify the significance of his achievements.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is at 1000 Fifth Avenue. For information, 212-535-7710. The three Hassam exhibitions in Connecticut take place at: The Wadsworth Atheneum, 60 Main Street, Hartford, CT 06103, info 860-278-2670; The Bush-Holley House, 39 Strickland Road, Cos Cob, CT 06807, info 203-869-6899; and The Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme Street, Old Lyme, CT 06371, info 860-434-5542.
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