Childe Hassam (1859–1935)

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Childe Hassam – View of a Southern French City (1910)
Childe Hassam (1859–1935)

Childe Hassam (1859–1935), a pioneer of American Impressionism and perhaps its most devoted, prolific, and successful practitioner, was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts (now a suburb of Boston), into a family descended from settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Equally adept at capturing the excitement of modern cities and the charms of country retreats, Hassam (properly pronounced HASS-am) became the foremost chronicler of New York City at the turn of the century. In our day, he is perhaps best known for his depictions of flag-draped Fifth Avenue during World War I (67.187.127). His finest works manifest his brilliant handling of color and light and reflect his credo (stated in 1892) that “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.”

After establishing his reputation in Boston between 1882 and 1886, Hassam studied from 1886 to 1889 in Paris. There he was unusual among his American contemporaries in his attraction to French Impressionism, which was just beginning to find favor with American collectors. Hassam returned to the United States late in 1889 and took up lifelong residence in New York. His signature images include views of Boston, Paris, and New York, three urban centers whose places and pleasures he captured with affection and originality. Examples include Winter in Union Square (43.116.2) and Spring Morning in the Heart of the City (43.116.1), both of which record lively sections of New York during the first decade of Hassam’s activity there.

Childe Hassam (1859–1935)

While Hassam was unusual among the American Impressionists for his frequent depictions of burgeoning cities, he spent long periods in the countryside. There he found respite from urban pressures and inspiration for numerous important works of art. Hassam’s many portrayals of the old-fashioned gardens, rocky coast, and radiant sunlight of the Isles of Shoals, Maine, are among his most cherished works. Among them is the 1901 view Coast Scene, Isles of Shoals(09.72.6), the first canvas by the artist to enter the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. Hassam’s images of Newport, Portsmouth, Old Lyme, Gloucester, and other New England locales also exemplify the late nineteenth-century appreciation of the picturesque region redolent of early American settlement and colonial growth. In 1919, Hassam and his wife purchased a colonial-period house in East Hampton, on the south fork of Long Island, New York, and made it their summer headquarters.

Working Title/Artist: Celia Thaxter’s Garden, Isles of Shoals, Maine Department: Am. Paintings / Sculpture Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1890 photography by mma, Digital File DP139631.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 2_10_10

Hassam created more than 2,000 oils, watercolors, pastels, and illustrations, and—after 1912—more than 400 etchings and other prints. With these works he achieved critical acclaim and commercial success, riding the great wave of enthusiasm for American Impressionism to fame and fortune.

The most distinctive and famous works of his later life compose the set of about thirty paintings known as the “Flag series”, which he began in 1916 when he was inspired by a “Preparedness Parade” (for the American involvement in World War I) held on Fifth Avenue in New York (renamed the “Avenue of the Allies” during the Liberty Loan Drives of 1918). Thousands participated in these parades which often lasted for over twelve hours. “

The Avenue in the Rain
Frederick Childe Hassam

Being a avid Francophile, of English ancestry, and strongly anti-Germany, Hassam enthusiastically backed the Allied cause and the protection of French culture. The Hassams joined with other artists in the war relief effort from nearly the beginning of the conflict in 1914, when most Americans as well as President Woodrow Wilson were decidedly isolationist. He even had in mind to volunteer to go to Europe to record the war, but the government would not approve the trip. He was even arrested (and quickly released) for innocently sketching naval maneuvers along the city’s rivers. As well as the time he gave to many committees, several of the flag pictures were contributed to the war relief, and he accepted Liberty Bonds in payment for one. Although he had great hopes that the entire series would sell as a war memorial set (for $100,000), the pictures were sold individually after several group exhibitions, the last at the Corcoran Gallery in 1922.

Monet, among other French artists, had also painted flag-themed works, but Hassam’s have a distinctly American character, displayed on New York’s most fashionable street with his own compositional style and artistic vision. In most paintings in the series, the flags dominate the foreground, while in others the flags are simply part of the festive panorama. In some, the American flags wave alone and in others, flags of the Allies flutter as well. In his most impressionistic painting in the series, The Avenue in the Rain (1917), the flags and their reflections are blurred so extremely as to appear to be viewed through a rain-smeared window. His flag paintings cover all seasons and various weather and light conditions. Hassam makes a patriotic statement without overt reference to parades, soldiers, or war, apart for one picture showing a flag exclaiming “Buy Liberty Bonds”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Historical Society, and the National Gallery of Art all own a Hassam flag painting.

In 1919, Hassam purchased a home in East Hampton, New York. Many of his late paintings employed nearby subjects in that town and on Long Island. The post-war art market boomed in the 1920’s, and Hassam commanded escalating prices, though some critics thought he had became static and repetitive, as American art had begun to move on to the Realism of the Ashcan School and artists like Edward Hopper and Robert Henri. In 1920, he received the Gold Medal of Honor for lifetime achievement from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and numerous other awards through the 1920’s. Hassam traveled relatively little in his last years, but did visit California, Arizona, Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico. He died in East Hampton in 1935, at age 75.

Childe Hassam (1859–1935)

To the end, he denounced modern trends in art, and he termed “art boobys” all the painters, critics, collectors, and dealers who got on the bandwagon and promoted Cubism, Surrealism and other avant-garde movements.” From his death until a revival of interest in American Impressionism in the 1960’s, Hassam was considered among the “abandoned geniuses”. As French Impressionist paintings reached stratospheric prices in the 1970’s, Hassam and other American Impressionists gained renewed interest and were bid up as well. (From Wikipedia) 

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