Childe Hassam (1859–1935), the leader of American Impressionism, was the movement's most devoted, prolific, and successful practitioner and promoter. Among the first Americans to catch the spirit of the new French painting, he became the principal Impressionist chronicler of New York City, modern America's most distinctive subject. At the same time, he encoded in his New England scenes the prevailing nostalgia for a simpler, earlier time.
Born in historic Dorchester, Massachusetts, now part of Boston, Hassam was descended from settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. "Hassam" was derived from the English name "Horsham." Early in his career, he discarded his given name, Frederick, in favor of his distinctive middle name.
Hassam's early works, done in and around Boston, announce his lifelong devotion to pastoral scenes and urban views as well as his cheerful outlook and patriotic pride. As an art student in Paris from 1886 to 1889, he was exceptional among his compatriots in adopting French Impressionism's modern subjects and vibrant style.
Settling in New York in 1889, Hassam found in the dynamic city inspiration for experiments with rapid brushwork, a high-keyed palette, and brilliant effects of color and light. Between 1890 and 1919 he went on extended, productive visits to picturesque villages along the New England coast. In 1920 charming East Hampton, New York, became his summer headquarters.
Energetically marketing his immense output of oils, watercolors, pastels, illustrations, and prints, Hassam rode the wave of enthusiasm for American Impressionism to fame and fortune. By the time he died, however, modernism and regionalism had eclipsed the style. Today, the revival of appreciation for American Impressionism that began in the mid-1960s is at a peak, as is Hassam's reputation.
The exhibition is made possible by The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation and The Bank of New York.
Additional support has been provided by the Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund.
Hassam pursued the limited opportunities for formal art study in Boston. From exhibitions and fellow artists he absorbed the prevailing taste for naturalistic vignettes of rural scenery of the sort produced by the French painters who gathered in the village of Barbizon beginning in the 1830s. He also started to show and sell his works in commercial galleries and at the annuals of exhibiting organizations.
In 1883 Hassam traveled to Europe for the first time. After returning to Boston, he painted more often in oil, probably as a result of his exposure to European art and his studies at the Boston Art Club.
After marrying Maud Doane in February 1884, Hassam lived in an apartment on Columbus Avenue in Boston's newly expanded South End, where he painted a group of impressive tonal cityscapes. He was probably inspired by conservative European painters of modern life and possibly by the French Impressionists; works by both groups were exhibited in Boston and New York. Hassam's Boston views were unprecedented in American art.
"Childe Hassam, the audacious and brilliant watercolorist and landscapist, is off for three years' study in Paris," announced the Art Amateur in November 1886. Hassam's decision to seek training in Paris was inevitable; for about twenty years American art had been redefined by French influence. The Hassams occupied a succession of apartments with adjoining studios in the Clichy district at the edge of Montmartre. Home to Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the neighborhood was rich with artistic ferment. Hassam's bourgeois living arrangements and puritanical temperament, however, set him apart from his French contemporaries and even from his more bohemian compatriots.
Hassam followed the most common course of study for Americans by enrolling at the popular Académie Julian. More advanced as a painter than most American art students in Paris, he was exceptionally willing to celebrate the urban scene and to adopt the styles of the modern French artists: the conservative chroniclers of everyday life, the Impressionists, and even the neo-Impressionists. He recorded the metropolitan spectacle selectively, emphasizing the features of Third Republic Paris, just as he had earlier focused on highlights of the new Boston. He often brightened his palette, loosened his brushwork, and recorded the effects of brilliant sunlight in oils and watercolors. Inklings of Impressionism notwithstanding, Hassam sometimes enlisted the tonal palette, traditional volumetric armatures, and careful outlines he had used in Boston.
In the three summers, from 1887 through 1889, Hassam and his wife visited the home of friends at Villiers-le-Bel, about ten miles northeast of Paris in the Oise Valley. There, Hassam painted a series of delightful garden scenes that reflect his lifelong interest in the subject.
After Hassam settled in New York in 1889, he resumed the summer excursions along the New England shore that he had begun as a young artist in Boston. In scores of paintings, drawings, and etchings, he expressed his pride in his Yankee heritage and promoted the widely shared conviction that New England represented the essence of America. Ignoring evidence of change or modernity, he recorded picturesque villages, white-columned churches, old-fashioned gardens, demure women, and rugged seacoasts. Such themes represented qualities Hassam cherished and struck a chord with potential collectors who found in them assurance of immutable American values.
The Isles of Shoals, a cluster of rocky islands nine miles off the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine, attracted Hassam from 1886 until about 1916. On Appledore, the largest of the islands, the poet Celia Laighton Thaxter (1835–1894) helped her brothers manage the Appledore House hotel and hosted a lively salon of writers, artists, and musicians. The hundreds of works Hassam produced at the Isles of Shoals—almost one-tenth of his oeuvre—reflect a thirty-year span during which he developed from a twenty-six year old embarking on a career into one of the most famous artists in America.
Years after returning to the United States in October 1889, Hassam recalled: "To me New York is the most wonderful and most beautiful city in the world." In the spectacle that is New York Hassam found subjects of the sort that previously had engaged him in Boston and Paris.
The bustling city on the brink of the twentieth century was an ideal venue for an artist committed to Impressionism, which enlisted informal compositions and high vantage points to suggest instantaneous encounters with fragmented experience. Hassam voiced his credo in 1892: "I believe the man who will go down to posterity is the man who paints his own time and the scenes of every-day life around him." He always selected such scenes with an eye to gentility and fashion, however. Like most American Impressionists, he ignored social ferment and economic turmoil (including a depression that began in 1893) and viewed modern life as if through rose-colored glasses.
Between 1889 and 1935 Hassam and his wife occupied a succession of apartments with adjoining studios on or near Fifth Avenue. Vignettes of that bustling spine of Gilded Age Manhattan and of the adjacent squares are typical of Hassam's art during the 1890s. Examples appear in this gallery and in the one that follows, along with works inspired by visits to Boston and Chicago that also nourished Hassam's emerging vision of urban America.
Hassam never taught or painted on commission, relying instead on marketing his immense output through dealers and exhibitions. This practical concern, as well as aesthetic considerations, provoked his exceptional attention to harmonious framing. Many of the original frames selected or designed by Hassam are described in the identification labels.
All of New England appealed to Hassam, but his desire for stimulating companionship narrowed his choices of painting sites. At the Isles of Shoals, as in Cos Cob and Old Lyme, Connecticut, and Gloucester, Massachusetts, Hassam joined enclaves of artists who enriched his leisure and energized his work. In Old Lyme his association with the printmaker Kerr Eby in summer 1915 inspired him to return to etching, a medium that would engage him for the rest of his life. Hassam usually spent time in several New England locales each year. Although he protested later that he had visited Old Lyme "in the fall before the artists got there and after they had left," photographs taken there show him surrounded by smiling colleagues.
Several of the rural venues that Hassam frequented provided him with opportunities to exhibit and sell his pictures. The galleries that are as common as clam shacks at seaside resorts today are descended from a variety of improvised art venues of a century ago. These summer outlets supplemented the winter season in urban galleries, permitting artists to market their work year-round.
While tradition, subjects to paint, recreation, congenial companionship, and, to varying degrees, marketing opportunities were offered in all the New England places that Hassam visited, each one claimed a distinct identity. Appledore, for example, was an island resort, Cos Cob a rustic village, Gloucester a commercial seaport. In depicting them Hassam created a composite portrait of New England between 1890 and 1919, when he and his wife purchased their own country home in East Hampton on New York's Long Island.
Hassam spent winters in New York and summers in New England and, later, East Hampton, refreshing his spirit and artistic imagination. Although he once proclaimed, "I am the Marco Polo of the painters," he went to Europe less often than a number of American artists—William Merritt Chase and Theodore Robinson, for example. He avoided European artists' colonies and had little interest in foreign exhibitions.
Hassam did, however, make several trips to distant locales, including Havana (1895), Europe (1896–97, 1910), Oregon (1904, 1908), and California (1914). In many of the images inspired by these journeys he sacrificed simple descriptiveness for a decorative approach. Perhaps the subjects he encountered in unfamiliar places liberated him to engage more with formal issues than was his custom at home. The need to paint quickly to accommodate a travel schedule also may have encouraged him to adopt vivacious brushwork. Whatever prompted these experiments, they are often reflected in works Hassam created after he returned to familiar terrain.
In the summer of 1898 Hassam began an enduring association with East Hampton, on the south fork of Long Island, New York. The reasons he was drawn to East Hampton are clear: it was a beautiful village that had long combined summer social life with art. Although English Puritan immigrants—most from Lynn, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony—had founded East Hampton in 1648 and it was redolent of the colonial spirit, it was only 110 miles east of Manhattan. To Hassam and many others, the region must have seemed like the seventh New England state.
Hassam and his wife, Maud, often returned to their usual New England haunts after 1898, but they also visited East Hampton from time to time as guests of friends. In mid-summer 1919, soon after Hassam completed the Flag series, they bought a shingled saltbox on Egypt Lane in East Hampton. Willow Bend, which had been built about 1722, would be the Hassams' residence from May through October each year following. The idyllic seaside village of East Hampton and nearby Montauk inspired the artist to portray handsome gardens and old houses, meadows and beaches, and still lifes (as well as allegorical nudes, seen in identifiable East End settings, and even golfers).
Hassam died in East Hampton on August 27, 1935, two months before his seventy-sixth birthday. An obituary stated, "He lived with gusto, smoked a pipe, played golf, kept a good cellar, buffeted the East Hampton surf with a great, bronzed body, and worked joyously until his last illness."
Hassam often included still-life elements in interior and garden scenes and made a few independent still-life paintings. This small selection charts his evolution from Impressionist candor to a measure of post-Impressionist deliberation and interest in abstract design and decorative surfaces.
Long Island Pebbles and Fruit of 1931 is the painting upon which Hassam is seen working in the fifteen-minute silent film Childe Hassam, Artist, produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1932.
The second phase of Hassam's activity in New York began after his 1896–97 visit to Europe. Upon his return he was struck, perhaps more vividly than ever before, by New York's transformation into a modern metropolis with a distinctive appearance, pace, and rhythm.
Hassam shifted his focus from fashionable residential neighborhoods to uptown commercial precincts and recorded Manhattan's looming new skyscrapers aglow with electric light. He remained disengaged from unpleasant urban realities, however, portraying skyscrapers only allusively and often capturing evocative weather conditions and times of day to veil ugliness. Many of his post-1900 cityscapes seem to be studies of composition, color, and atmosphere rather than portraits of places; they sometimes verge on abstraction.
Between 1909 and about 1922, seemingly threatened by burgeoning modernity, Hassam at times retreated from streetscapes to portray women isolated in their apartments. These paintings encode the experience of living in tall modern buildings and romanticize that experience by showing other high buildings only through curtained windows.
From 1916 to 1919, as the only major American Impressionist to depict the homefront during World War I, Hassam produced the Flag series, some thirty canvases that represent Fifth Avenue and adjacent streets as a vibrant skyscraper-lined stage decorated with patriotic banners. Four days after the armistice was signed, on November 11, 1918, Hassam showed twenty-three Flag paintings at New York's Durand-Ruel Galleries. He would exhibit the series five times, seeking, unsuccessfully, to sell it to the city of New York or to an American museum.