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Childe Hassam

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Childe Hassam
(Dorchester, Massachusetts, 1859 - 1935, East Hampton, New York)

In "Childe Hassam: American Impressionist," art historian Ulrich Hiesinger states that Childe Hassam was the leading Impressionist artist in America. Hassam most persistently and effectively applied the principles of French Impressionism to the American setting. His foundation was his skill in manipulating color and light, in accordance with his belief that the primary appeal of painting was emotional rather than intellectual. In a career that spanned over fifty years, Hassam successfully captured the American spirit from his depictions of middle class leisure activity to New York and Boston street life and his most famous “Avenue of the Allies” flag painting during and shortly after World War I. An American Impressionist, Hassam’s work embodied the closing of one era and opening of another.

Frederick Childe Hassam was born in his family home in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1859. Dorchester was a suburb of Boston that still retained the character of a small northeastern country town. Born to Frederick Fitch and Rosa Hawthorne Hassam, the artist had an idyllic youth. His father worked as a cutlery merchant in Boston and collected antiques. One of his most prized pieces was an old coach that once belonged to Massachusetts governor William Eustis and had served Lafayette on his triumphal tour of America in 1824. “It had steps that let down,” said Hassam of the coach, “and a large flap pocket in the door. I would open the door, let down the steps, and put my water colors in the flap with my pad of Whatman paper-climb into the well cushioned seat and stay there as long as a boy stays anywhere.”(1) As a child, Hassam always had access to artist’s tools-be it watercolors, charcoal, or colored crayons. He was educated in Dorchester at the Mather School, where he received instruction in drawing and watercolor painting. Recognizing his talent, an aunt sent him to local painters, hoping he would be given guidance. However, his parents were skeptical of his artistic inclinations. It was through a sad twist of fate that Hassam entered the artistic field.

The 1872 fire in Boston destroyed his father’s business. As a result, the elder Hassam was forced to sell his antiques collection, and the young Hassam was forced to leave school before graduation. Discovering he had no talent for numbers in a failed apprenticeship at a publishing firm, Hassam was sent to work in the engraving shop of George E. Johnson. At first his responsibilities were limited to mechanical tasks such as cutting lines onto plates. But, due to his extraordinary talent, Hassam quickly advanced and was soon designing layouts for commercial engravings. By 1881, the artist established himself as a freelance illustrator, specializing in children’s stories. That same year, he began studies at the Lowell Institute in drawing, painting, and anatomy under the Italian artist Tommaso Juglaris and the German Ignaz Gaugengigl, who had studied with Jean-Leon Gerome and Alexandre Cabanel in Paris.

Hassam’s private work was quite different than his commercial illustrations. During the summers, Hassam visited Glouchester and Nantucket where he painted "en plein air." While he experimented in oil as early as 1878, his first chosen media was watercolor. His first solo show was held in 1882 at Williams & Everett Gallery in Boston. The show was comprised of fifty watercolors, mostly given over to Nantucket scenes with bits of beach, boats, figures, old cottages, with glimpses of sea and sky. His early watercolors also focus on bucolic scenery-forests, streams, and farm folk. Hassam would return to these locales later in his career, but it was Europe that began calling his attention.

In 1883, Hassam embarked on his first tour of Europe with colleague and friend Edmund Henry Garnett. The two men arrived in Great Britain, visiting Scotland and London, and were particularly impressed with Turner and English watercolorists in general. They traveled to the Netherlands and France, briefly stopping in Paris. Making their way through Switzerland, they passed through Venice and Naples. On the way home, they visited several cities in Spain while their ship stopped to take on cargo. Hassam painted every step of the trip, and it was sixty-seven of these watercolors that comprised his second show at the Williams & Everett Gallery in 1884.

1883 was an eventful year for Hassam, as he moved to a larger studio on Tremont Street in Boston, he began life drawing classes at the Boston Art Club, and he had his first exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York. Sometime during the 1880s, Hassam also met poetess Celia Thaxter, a woman who became an important inspiration in the following years. Hassam taught her watercolor painting for a short time along with William Morris Hunt’s sister, Jane. Thaxter lived in Boston during the winters, and during the summer, she held court to a number of artists, writers, and musicians at her summer home on the Isle of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast. According to Hassam, it was Thaxter who persuaded him to drop Frederick, by “pointing out that a man in search of fame should capitalize on the memorable quality of a name like Childe.”(2)

Upon his return from Europe, Hassam continued his life as a student and free-lance illustrator. He spent a good deal of time painting outside and profited most from professional relationships with members of organizations like the Paint and Clay Club. Although he never met him, William Morris Hunt was an important early influence. Hunt preached the necessity of painting outdoors to accurately capture atmosphere and light. At this time, Hassam became increasingly interested in the movement of humanity on the street and began to paint Boston street life. One of his best known early works, "Rainy Day, Boston" (1885, Toledo Museum of Art), is a depiction of the junction of Columbus Avenue at Appleton Street. It was an ambitious painting, as the site offered a broad sweep of space while introducing the complexity of a dual perspective. As Hiesinger points out, the artist overstretched himself, dealing simultaneously with a number of different issues-plunging perspectives, the interplay of architectural and figural elements, and the variety of different surfaces.(3) However, in painting city life, Hassam depicted a genre that few others had explored.

In 1886, Hassam made his second trip to Paris. The artist lived at 11 Boulevard de Clichy, in the heart of the Parisian art world where almost all apartments contained ateliers. He was also near Place Pigalle, the marketplace for models. Hassam came with his wife, Maude (who he had married two years earlier), and the couple strove to associate with French artists. Not wanting to limit themselves to their fellow Americans, the Hassams spoke French in their home, and tried to become a part of the French scenery as much as possible.

Hassam attended the Academie Julien, and befriended another American artist Frank Boggs (whose work "Paris" is also in the MMFA collection), who had a studio in the same building. From the beginning, Hassam worked independently in conjunction with his classes and found the monotony and academia of the training at Julien quite unsatisfying. The most important lessons from Paris he learned on his own, learning by example and practice. His time in Paris was a fortunate one-he was receiving money from his gallery in Boston as his works sold at home and he began sending his Paris works to exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York. Hassam also sent works to the Boston Art Club, The Paint and Clay Club, and the Boston Watercolor Society.

While in Paris, Hassam continued to explore his interest in street scenes that had begun in Boston. He sent "Cab Station, Rue Bonaparte" (1887, The Manney Collection) to the 1887 Paris Salon where it received wide acclaim. Hassam joined the company of America’s celebrated Salon members, which included Julius L. Stewart, Daniel Ridgeway Knight, and Frederick Bridgman (also in the MMFA collection). "Cab Station, Rue Bonaparte" was similar to "Rainy Day, Boston" in that Hassam employs deep perspective. However here, he chose to focus on one street as opposed to an intersection. The street itself runs wide through the middle of the canvas, with a long line of stagecoach cabs receding into the distance along the curb at the left side of the painting. Various Parisians dot the right side of the street, however, most charming is an older man with a young girl pulling a utility wagon in the immediate foreground on the right side of the canvas. In Paris, Hassam was more content in reaffirming the truths in art he already knew, rather than exploring new ground.

In the summer of 1887, Hassam traveled to Normandy. While little is known of his visit there, undoubtedly he went to visit American artist colonies that were spouting there and in Brittany. Scores of American artists began visiting the quaint French country villages in search of primitive subject matter, years before Paul Gauguin and his followers made the area famous. It was also at this time that American artists were making their first visits to Giverny, where Claude Monet lived and worked, thus opening a new era in American involvement with Impressionism.

Hassam then began to experiment with light and color in works such as "Grand Prix Day (Le Jour de Grand Prix)" (1887, New Britain Museum of American Art) and an almost identical version, "Grand Prix Day" (1887, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The scenes are the fashionable parades in Paris that inaugurated each horseracing season. The New Britain version is an explosion of brilliant blue sky and lush green of the trees, complemented by the deep hues of the people and their horses and carriages. The Boston version is more muted with the sky predominantly neutral with spots of blue and green. A luminous orb of light yellow intimates the sun hiding behind the tree line. Hassam continued to capture racing themes. This time, he shifted the perspective to behind the carriages, as in "Carriage Parade" (1888, Haggin Museum), thus giving a greater sense of motion.

By 1888, Hassam had quit the Academie Julien altogether and was working on his own. Thereafter, his works improved dramatically, as he introduced bold color notes and used the brush in a much looser, freer, manner.(4) Hassam’s greatest amusement was to walk around the streets of Paris in search of his own motifs. He opened up to the city’s people and public life and captured famous landmarks as well. He painted flower stands, and other street vendors, themes that were to serve him in the years to come. Hiesinger states that in these works, there is a drive of personal curiosity, a faith in the artistic process as a genuine search for truth, and a belief that Hassam’s role as an artist-observer was to discover and communicate the often unrecognized aspects of life.

Until his return to the United States in 1889, Hassam primarily stayed in Paris, save trips to England and the nearby countryside of Paris, particularly Villiers-el-Bel. The Hassams friends from Pairs, the Blumenthals, owned Thomas Couture’s former home in this small rural town ten miles northeast of Paris. Hassam created most of his work in the large formal garden attached to the Blumenthals’ villa, a wall enclosure that included formal terraces, flower beds, winding paths, earthen walkways, and benches set beneath shade trees. It was here that he painted one his best known and most important works, "Geraniums" (1888, Hyde Collection). The artist depicted a young woman seated on a flowered terrace. She is located in the left upper quadrant of the painting, and is literally surrounded by brilliant red geraniums that line a wall and steps in front of her. Two watering cans sit on the ground among red petals in the foreground. While Hassam assuredly used Maude as a model in many paintings, this is the only one that is proven with this own testimony: “Villiers-el-Bel is where I painted many of my garden things,” he said. “One is of Mrs. Hassam seated under a glass awning. Of course, the awning does not show. The geraniums are banked on a series of two or three steps.”(5)

Hassam was unimpressed with the American exhibition at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889. He was convinced that an American school existed although he saw it weakened by French academic painting. He accepted and admired the Impressionists, but did not worship them as others did. That summer, he created a series of paintings recording Bastille Day (July 14th) in Paris. The Bastille Day paintings were a precursor to his famous Avenue of the Allies paintings, which were begun in 1916.

In the fall of 1889, the Hassams sailed for the United States. Upon their arrival, the couple immediately went home to Boston in order to prepare for a move to New York. Hassam’s return to the American art scene was slow, as he knew virtually no one and as a result returned to illustrating. By mid-1890, however, Hassam began to get a foothold as he sold his first watercolors to Samuel Coleman at the American Watercolor Society exhibition. Hassam also met fellow artists J. Alden Weir and John Twachtman and came to know them well. In the days to come, Hassam retuned to painting street scenes, and when the weather warmed up, he returned to painting "en plein air." Hassam had a remarkable sense of observation and his sketchbooks were filled with detailed notes of the effects of color and light in all weather conditions. While his reasoning echoed direct observation of nature, Hassam was a strong proponent of the artist’s individual, instantaneous response:

Art, to me, is the interpretation of the impression which nature makes upon the eye and brain. The word “impression” as applied to art has been abused, and in the general acceptance of the term has become perverted. It really means the only truth because it means going straight to nature for inspiration, and not allowing tradition to dictate to your brush, or to put brown, green or some other colored spectacles between you and nature as it really exists. The true impressionism is realism. So many people do not observe. They take the ready-made axioms laid down by others, and walk blindly into a rut without trying to see for themselves.(6)

One of Hassam’s contemporary’s greatest compliments to him was his ability to capture the nuances of a place. Hassam had the ability to adopt forms, colors, lights, and darks of his compositions to the expressive character he wished to achieve, be it a crowd in the city or the New England countryside. It was at this time that Hassam and his wife began making summer trips to Celia Thaxter’s home on the Isle of Shoals. Here, Hassam created some of his most beautiful floral seascapes, such as "Poppies, Isle of Shoals" (1891, Private Collection) and "Poppies, Isle of Shoals" (1890, Brooklyn Museum). In both works, a dazzling field of poppies breaks away to the rocky New England seashore. The works brilliant color and simple composition provide a sense of warmth and relaxation—probably close to what artists felt when visiting Thaxter’s retreat. The Hassams also continued to make trips to Gloucester where Hassam captured the New England coastal town and its locals. It was during this time that the Museum’s "Gloucester Harbor" of 1895 was painted.

In 1896, the Hassams again sailed for Europe. They traveled to a number of different cities, including Naples, Rome, Florence, London, and the Brittany region in southern France. The most notable effect of this trip was that Hassam’s palette lightened considerably. His subject mater remained the same—European street scenes, garden scenes and historical monuments—with his palette becoming lighter and more impressionistic.

Upon their return to New York in 1897, the Hassams found that an interest in the Impressionists was on the rise in New York, and it became a crucial time for American Impressionism. Hassam, Twachtman, and Weir were the movement’s biggest activists. Along with Thomas E. Dewing, Edward E. Simmons, Joseph R. De Camp, Willard L. Metcalf, Childe Hassam, Frank Benson, Robert Reid, and Edmund C. Tarbell; with William Merritt Chase taking the place of Twachtman upon his death, the group formed “The Ten.” The men exhibited together from approximately1898 until 1919. Their first exhibit was at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in New York in March of 1898. Critics misunderstood Hassam’s work and his work was seen as the most radical. Critics described his work as “queer” and “quite incomprehensible” while others thought his work was too experimental to be taken seriously. That summer, Hassam won the silver medal prize at the Carnegie International for a large figure painting entitled "The Sea" (Private Collection). He thought it the most important work he had ever done.

Hassam continued his summer travels, this time visiting Provincetown, Massachusetts, along with Gloucester and East Hampton.(7) The artist was recording small town American life, and the paintings closely resembled his works from Pont-Aven in Brittany. Hassam was able to support himself through the sale of his works throughout his entire life—he was constantly preoccupied with exhibiting and selling. Quite often he proposed ideas of showing his paintings in small museums and enlisted the help of museum directors to find patrons for his work. As a result, by 1910, most major collections in the United States owned examples of Hassam’s work.

In the last years of his career, Hassam became less interested in his street scenes. His increasing absences from New York also suggest an apathy toward street life in general—however the artist did continue to capture the city. He painted men building Manhattan skyscrapers and other city scenes. At this time, Hassam also began painting more traditional subject matter such as classical nudes in garden settings. The Hassams again returned to Europe in the early twentieth century, and upon their return to New York in 1910, Hassam began his window series in which women and sometimes children were often depicted in front of open windows. The artist also showed an increasing interest in still life. Perhaps the most important manifestation of this trip was his return to capturing the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris and the flags that lined Parisian buildings.

By the time World War I began, Childe Hassam was one of the foremost artists in the United States. During the war, he completed a group of flag paintings that became his most significant late works. His initial inspiration was a patriotic celebration he witnessed in wartime New York. Hassam said “I painted the flag series after we went into the war. There was that Preparedness Day, and I looked up the avenue and saw those wonderful flags waving, and I painted the series of flag pictures after that.”(8) The parade was an enormous event along Fifth Avenue and was the first large-scale public demonstration in support of the creation of a large, well-trained army. It represented the beginning of United States involvement in the European conflict, even though the country did not officially enter the war until the following April. Few artists were sent to document World War I, and as a result, a number of artists documented the events back home, such as Hassam’s flag series.

One of his most dazzling works of the series is "The Avenue in the Rain, 1917 (Flag Day)" (1917, The White House). In this vertical work. Hassam depicts a huge American flag dominating a rainy street scene and smaller banners are repeated endlessly down the avenue. It is a purely Impressionistic painting, with thick impasto strokes. There is no clear definition of where the building ends and the street begins—it as is if water has been splashed across the lens of a camera and Hassam has painted the street before the water has been dried away.

It is unknown how many flag paintings Hassam created from 1916 to 1919. As time progressed, the works became less impressionistic and most detailed. The works also internationalized, as Hassam included other allied flags—the paintings became symbolic of America’s new position in the international arena.

In the last fifteen years of his life, Hassam’s creativity lessened and a sense of sameness recurred in his works. As he became older, dealers and galleries constantly hounded him for works and it seemed to be unrelenting. Hassam’s main complaint was that they might have done this when he was younger. Bouts with ill health and his increased drinking contributed to his slower speed with which he painted, but the artist was still producing rich work, such as "A Long Island Garden" (1922, Kansas City Art Institute) or "Fruit Still Life" (1930, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts). Hassam died in 1935, two month shy of his seventy-sixth birthday.

- Letha Clair Robertson, 4.14.04

Image credit: Unknown Artist, Childe Hassam, about 1915–1920, glass negative, Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C., [LC-B2- 4841-9]

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