In the summer of 1889, a 29-year-old American artist with an unusual name, Childe Hassam, rented a studio in Paris’ Montmartre district. Littering the space were unsold canvases abandoned by the previous tenant—“un peintre fou,” the concierge called him. The “mad painter” was Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
The young American had never heard of the artist, a leader of the French Impressionists, but he was intrigued by his work. “I looked at these experiments in pure color and saw it was what I was trying to do myself,” he recalled 38 years later.
Hassam, who died in 1935 at age 75, was a pioneer of American Impressionism in the 1890s. Though he never studied formally with his French counterparts, he adapted their style to make vivid paintings of distinctly American subjects. His choice of contemporary scenes, from chicly dressed New Yorkers parading down Fifth Avenue to the weathered buildings and rocky coasts of New England, contrasted with American artists of the day, who preferred subjects from the past.
“Hitherto historical painting has been considered the highest branch of the art,” Hassam said in an 1892 magazine interview, when he was 32. “Atrue historical painter, it seems to me, is one who paints the life he sees about him, and so makes a record of his own epoch.”
Now some 150 works by the artist, praised in his lifetime as “a painter of light and air,” are on view through September 12 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “Childe Hassam, American Impressionist” features oils, watercolors, pastels and prints culled from the painter’s prodigious 50-year output.
Frederick Childe Hassam (he dropped his first name in favor of Childe, an uncle’s surname) was born on October 17, 1859, in the town of Dorchester, Massachusetts, now a part of Boston. His mother, Rosa Delia Hathorne, shared an ancestor with novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. His father, Frederick Fitch Hassam, a Boston cutlery merchant and antiques collector, claimed descent from a 17th-century English immigrant, whose name, Horsham, had been corrupted over time to Hassam (pronounced “HASS-um”). With his swarthy complexion and exotic-looking eyes, the artist was thought by many to be of Middle Eastern descent—speculation, it seems, he enjoyed stoking. In the mid-1880s, he took to painting an Islamic-looking crescent moon (later shortened to a slash) next to his signature, and he adopted the nickname Muley (derived from the Arabic Mawla, Lord or Master), after MuleyAbul Hassan, a 15th-century ruler of Granada in Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra.
Hassam was a scrappy, athletic youngster. “I could swim across DorchesterBay and knock out any of the other boys with my fists,” he once claimed. After dropping out of high school at 17, he found work as a draftsman in a wood-en- graving shop in Boston. An intricate panorama of MarbleheadHarbor that he drew there still graces the editorial page of Marblehead’s newspaper. By his early 20s, Hassam was contributing illustrations to Harper’s and Scribner’s magazines and attending art classes in his spare time. He was also producing a stream of unsentimental watercolors of country lanes and old houses that found ready buyers.
In February 1884, he married 22-year-old Kathleen Maud Doane, a family friend he’d courted for several years. The couple moved to Boston’s stylish South End, newly built over swampland along the Charles River. There Hassam created a series of densely detailed, naturalistic paintings of the wide boulevards and elegant brownstones around him, using dramatic, plunging perspectives and subtle atmospheric effects: a sunset filtering through trees, the softening glow of a fresh snowfall, or—his trademark—shimmering, rain-soaked pavements. “Hassam loved rain, but it’s never raining very hard,” says H. Barbara Weinberg, curator of the MetropolitanMuseum show. “Life is too pleasant for that. The sun is always ready to break through.”
Attempting to make art out of urban streetscapes was highly unorthodox in the 1880s. “There were virtually no Boston artists painting this kind of thing at the time,” Weinberg says. In fact, for many Americans after the Civil War— artists, critics and collectors alike—the only fitting subjects were to be found in distant lands or eras, if not atop Mount Olympus itself. “American life is so unpaintable,” a Frenchtrained American painter, Theodore Robinson, wrote a friend in 1883 (though he would later change his mind). “I would like to try a little flight into something Biblical or Mythological.” The hordes of young Americans who journeyed to Europe in the late 19th century to study painting favored studio compositions of heroic warriors or allegorical females painted in fastidious detail and with great technical polish.
In 1886, Hassam, too, began a three-year stay in Paris. At first, he and Maud lived in a decidedly un-Bohemian, fiveroom apartment with a large attached studio on the Boulevard Clichy, overlooking the Opera. “They considered themselves a very proper French family,” says Weinberg of the couple, who never had children. “They even had a French maid!” Hassam enrolled at the renowned “petit atelier” of the Académie Julian. At 27 he was older and more self-assured than most of the other Americans. “The moment I entered the . . . atelier, my eye lit on Hassam,” a fellow student recalled. “I said to myself, ‘There is a man to look out for. . . . ’ ” Hassam devoted himself, he wrote a friend, to “drawing like a slave,” but found the academy atmosphere to be “the personification of routine.” The emphasis on contrived scenes, he said, “crushes all the originality out of the growing men. It tends to put them in a rut and keep them in it.” That spring, Hassam took his easel to the streets of Paris.