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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

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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