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Impressionism's American Childe

A new exhibition of works by Childe Hassam, a pioneering interpreter of the French style, highlights his "incorrigibly joyous" break with the past

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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.

At first, his outdoor paintings were a continuation of what he’d done in Boston: candid, rainy-day scenes of carriages and pedestrians rendered with confident polish. One of these, the immense Une Averserue Bonaparte, won a spot in the prestigious Paris Salon exhibition in 1887—a coup for a foreigner of any age. But a critic for the Boston Transcript wondered if it wasn’t time for him to “come in out of the rain.”

Perhaps Hassam heeded the barb. More likely, he was influenced by the vibrant, light-filled work of the Impressionists, who had mounted their eighth and final exhibition in Paris the previous year. In paintings such as Grand Prix Day (1887) and Geraniums (1888-89),Hassam demonstrated looser brushwork and a brighter palette than ever before. The paintings also foreshadowed his later reputation as a master of sunlight and shade. In 1919, the New York Times would write that Hassam knew “how to drench [his outdoor scenes] with light and give them air to breathe.”

From Paris, he shipped paintings to exhibitions back home. Before an auction of his work in Boston in 1887, which he called “a matter of life and death” financially, he arranged to give several favored American critics small oils as gifts, along with notes angling for positive reviews. “

One of the things we’ve discovered is how commercially driven Hassam was,” says Weinberg. “He showed paintings everywhere, from New York to Nebraska and points west— small exhibitions, large exhibitions. He never had a personal fortune. He never taught, and he never took on portrait commissions. He had to rely on the sale of his works.”

Satisfied he’d learned all he could in Paris, Hassam, who was about to turn 30, and his wife set sail for the United States in October 1889. The couple settled in New York City, the epicenter of America’s Gilded Age. “He became the unrivaled chronicler of New York,” Weinberg says. “As in Boston and Paris, he was the artist of the avenues.” He kept a succession of studios on or near Fifth Avenue and seldom traveled more than a few blocks to paint. Sometimes he worked from a window or balcony, but often he sketched the passing crowds at street level from a parked carriage, using the opposite seat as his easel. “There is nothing so interesting to me as people,” he remarked in 1892. “I am never tired of observing them in every-day life, as they hurry through the streets on business or saunter down the promenade on pleasure. Humanity in motion is a continual study to me.”

Not all humanity, however. Only two years before, the Danish-born social activist and photographer Jacob Riis had published his searing exposé of tenement life, How the Other Half Lives, but Riis and Hassam might as well have lived on different planets. “Hassam was always depicting the social set that would buy his paintings,” says Weinberg. “There’s no hint that there was a heterogeneous, struggling population in his cities, whether Boston, Paris or New York. Instead, you see a genteel, optimistic view of urban life.”

In the 1890s, Hassam—with his informal compositions, energetic brushwork and deft mosaics of pure color—became American Impressionism’s most prolific and successful practitioner. But Hassam identified himself only grudgingly as an Impressionist, and then only in the sense, he said, that he painted “impressions” of what he observed. “The true impressionism is realism,” he declared in 1892. He had little use for theory. “I can only paint as I do and be myself,” he told a critic in 1901. “Subjects suggest to me a color scheme and I just paint.”

Whatever the label, Hassam’s 1890s paintings were decidedly avant-garde for America. Many critics and collectors still preferred the deep brown shadows and rich golden-hued light of the old masters—the “molasses and bitumen school,” Hassam called the style. “The sort of atmosphere they like to see in a picture they couldn’t breathe for two minutes,” he said of critics. Reviewing Hassam’s first major one-man show in New York City, a writer for the New York Sun in 1896 praised his “artistic feeling and dashing manner,” then complained: “His key of color has been rising higher and higher until it simply screeches.” The show was a disaster. Geraniums, the exquisite painting that had helped Hassam earn a medal at the centennial Salon in Paris seven years before, sold for just $115 (about $2,500 today).

Summers in New England offered solace from such rebukes. He was drawn especially to picturesque spots with artists’ colonies, such as Provincetown, Gloucester and Maine and New Hampshire’s Isles of Shoals, which provided him with galleries to exhibit his work and plenty of plein-air painting companions. Hassam was a regular at a slightly rundown boardinghouse-cum-salon in Old Lyme, Connecticut, run by Miss Florence Griswold, the art-loving daughter of a sea captain. The painter found Old Lyme, he said, “just the place for high thinking and low living.” Landscape painter and friend Henry Rankin Poore recalled bicycling through the outskirts of town and hearing what he took to be the wing beat of a partridge. Dismounting, he discovered Hassam standing bare-chested at his easel in a field, pounding on his chest, Poore said, “for warmth and health.”

In New England, Hassam produced what would be among his most popular and critically admired works, notably seascapes and portraits of old houses and historic churches. “For urban Americans during this period,” says Weinberg, “New England was a place to seek spiritual reassurance because it was the American bedrock, literally.” The best-loved of these paintings are those he did on austere, rocky AppledoreIsland, just off the New Hampshire coast, which he and his wife visited over a 30-year period beginning in 1886. A small but exuberant cutting garden that their hostess, poet and innkeeper Celia Thaxter, somehow kept alive amid the rocks and salt spray inspired Hassam to paint a series of vivid oils and watercolors. Seeing these paintings, one critic wrote, was “like taking off a pair of black spectacles that one has been compelled to wear out of doors, and letting the full glory of nature’s sunlight color pour in upon the retina.”

Hassam was pleased in 1899 when the CincinnatiArt Museum bought Pont Royal, an airy view of the Seine he had painted from a Paris hotel window two years before, his first sale to a museum. But he continued to disdain the staid, Eurocentric taste of the New York City art establishment and the dull canvases of those he dismissed as his “contemptuaries.” In 1897, he and his close friend J. Alden Weir organized a breakaway group to mount its own exhibitions. They called themselves Ten American Painters, which became “the Ten.” Hassam showed paintings in every one of the group’s annual exhibitions between 1898 and 1919. “His output was tremendous,” says the Metropolitan’s Weinberg. She estimates he produced more than 2,000 oil paintings, pastels and watercolors, plus some 400 prints in his lifetime. A critic for the New York Daily Tribune suggested in 1911 that Hassam’s work was uneven because there was so much of it. “Energy like his (and he brims over with it) is perhaps unnecessarily wayward: it has its lucky and its unlucky moments.”

In New York in the early 1900s, Hassam, then in his 40s, had begun painting softly lit interiors with elegantly clothed female models posing meditatively next to curtained windows. Though the series seems contrived today, collectors and museums eagerly bought the works. J. Alden Weir reported to a mutual friend in 1907 that their old pal Muley, then 47, “has sold more pictures this winter, I think, than ever before and is really on the crest of a wave.”

By the time the watershed 1913 Armory Show introduced modernism to New York City, Hassam, who contributed six paintings to it, had joined the Old Guard, serving on prize juries and advising museum directors. At an artists’ club dinner in 1916, Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield playfully introduced Hassam and Weir, then 56 and 64, respectively, as “the mammoth and the mastodon of American art.”

At this point, Hassam and his wife were living in a spacious apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking West 57th Street. His best work seemed behind him, but the view of the bustling thoroughfare below may have inspired what became his most memorable burst of creativity. During World War I, New York City was the venue for a series of patriotic parades, and the canyons of Manhattan were filled with flags and bunting. Hassam, a fervent nationalist, painted more than two dozen images of flagdraped streets. In the later works in this series, the sunlit flags’ geometric blocks of color dominated the oversize canvases, and pedestrians became mere smudges of paint. “The visual excitement of these parades probably stirred him to do finer things than he otherwise would have done,” says Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Ilene Susan Fort. “He was almost 60, but he was so enthusiastic about using his paintings to support the war effort, it was as if he was on a several-year adrenaline high.”

Toward the end of the war, Hassam was sitting in RiversidePark sketching a transport ship at anchor in the Hudson, when a patrolman nabbed him on suspicion of being a German spy. The artist, who had called wartime Germans “hell-breathing hyenas” in a 1916 letter to a Boston newspaper, was apparently amused by the incident. After producing his bona fides at the precinct house, he commended the arresting officer for his vigilance.

In 1919, Hassam and his wife bought an 18th-century house in East Hampton, Long Island, where, over several summers, he would rise at daybreak to paint. His new works sold steadily, even if critics were unenthusiastic. Hassam claimed an income of $100,000 “from his brush” in 1920 alone. Hassam’s pronouncements on art and the art world turned ever more caustic as he aged. By 1932, most critics were “dolts, asses, dullards,” excepting the few who praised his work. “As he got older and crankier, his Yankee pride at times morphed into an unfortunate bias against foreigners,” says Weinberg. At 73, Hassam was referring to modernist painting as “Ellis Island art” foisted on the public by conniving foreign dealers.

By 1934, Hassam, then 75, was in declining health. Against a doctor’s advice, he continued to swim in the cold Atlantic surf at East Hampton, stopping only with the first autumn frost. By April 1935, he was so frail that he needed an ambulance to convey him from Manhattan to his Long Island home, where he died on August 27 of undisclosed causes.His will directed that income from the sale of his unsold paintings— more than a million dollars’ worth—go to New York’s American Academy of Arts and Letters to help museums buy the work of living North American artists.

Although Hassam the man could be disagreeable, Hassam the artist was “incorrigibly joyous,” wrote a New York Times critic in 1919. “The sun shines for him on rainy days, and his war pictures are flag pictures in all the colors of the rainbow.”

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