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Childe Hassam

American Impressionist

Metropolitan Museum of Art

June 10-September 12, 2004

"A New York Blizzard" by Childe Hassam

“A New York Blizzard,” by Childe Hassam, pastel on gray paper, 13 ¾ by 9 ½ inches, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, 1890

By Carter B. Horsley

Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935) was a very prolific American Impressionist painter who employed many very different styles that reflecting a diversity of influences over a long career in which he was most famous for his “Flag” series of urban celebrations at the end of World War I.

The “Flag” series originally consisted of more than two dozen very colorful canvases that the artist hoped would be kept together in a collection as he was confident they were his best work.  They were not.  Seven are included in this show and 25 were shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1988.

The “Flag” paintings remain in the realistic tradition although Hassam managed his perspectives to emphasize and enlarge the various national flags that he showed on both sides of major avenues and across them.  These works show the flags in breezes and are full of motion as opposed to the another contemporary major series, Marsden Hartley’s “Medal” paintings that are large and highly abstract close-ups of soldiers’ uniforms.  Hartley’s series is bold and very modern.  Hassam’s series is Impressionistic and nostalgic and very popular and patriotic.

Hassam’s “Flag” paintings came relatively late in his career and also were predated, if not heavily influenced, by Edouard Manet’s “The Rue Mosnier with Flags,” oil on canvas, 25 ¾ by 31 ¾ inches, 1878, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, which is reproduced in the lavish catalogue, and even more obviously by Claude Monet’s “La rue Montorgueil, Paris, during the Celebrations of June 30, 1878,” oil on canvas, 31 7/8 by 19 7/8 inches, 1878, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.  Both the Manet and the Monet works depict far more flags but they appear much smaller than Hassam’s treatment of the similar subject.

Hassam did not like to be said to be influenced by Monet, but there can be little question that the bulk of his oeuvre centers about the Impressionist style.

Many critics and observers have tended over the years to put down “American Impressionism” as derived and perhaps too restrained and too dull in comparison with its French predecessors, and counterparts.  Such critiques, however, are too harsh and neglect the interesting stylistic experiments of many of the better Americans.  It is true, of course, that few American “Impressionist” painters surpassed the French masters, but some often produced masterworks that any artist would be proud of.  In this category, most notably are some of the large abstractly impressionistic works of John Twachtman, probably the most poetic of the American Impressionists, some of the pastels of William Merritt Chase and Robert Blum, much of the oeuvre of Winslow Homer which in fact preceded the Impressionists, the exquisite Tonalism of George Inness, Dwight Tyron, and J. Francis Murphy, some of the muted and delicate compositions of Julian Alden Weir, and some of the later enriched palettes of Richard Miller and Frederick Frieseke.

Any discussion of American Impressionism, furthermore, must take note of the “White Ladies” of the “Ten,” lovely society portraits by truly lyrical artists such as John White Alexander and Thomas Dewing and such good artists as Edward Tarbell, Robert Benson, William Metcalf, and Robert Reid.

One should also caution that French Impressionists did not have as great an impact on American painters as James Abbott McNeil Whistler and John Singer Sargent, two great expatriate American artists whose bravura and painterliness in their best works are incomparable.

Where does Hassam stand artistically, then, among his American colleagues?

Whistler and Sargent, of course, hold their own with the French Impressionists as great masters of international renown.

Winslow Homer is America’s greatest artist but Impressionism is only part of his weaponry.

Chase’s influence as a teacher was very great, almost as important as that of Robert Henri, somewhat later.

Chase produced some very fine and flamboyant masterworks.  One thinks of his beach scene with brightly colored umbrellas, his foggy pier scenes, and his large interior scenes rather than his less exciting Shinnecock landscapes.

Less influential and less consistent, Twachtman, nevertheless, produced the most memorable and original images of all the American Impressionists.

Dewing and Inness were highly consistent and produced many works of great beauty, certainly more than Chase, or Twachtman, or Hassam, yet their work is often not classified as Impressionist.

This show has taken some rough “hits” from important art critics who have argued that it is filled with too many mediocre works and does little to raise Hassam’s standing:

Hilton Kramer, writing June 28, 2004 in The New York Observer, maintained that "the exhibition is simply too big for its subject." "Hassam," he continued, "was, after all, a minor figure in the art of his time - minor, that is, in aesthetic achievement. And his limitations were compounded by his habit of repeating himself to meet the demands of a robust market....It was his main distinction to have succeeded in transforming Impressionism into something safe, sweet, conservative and comforting for an American public averse to avant-garde innovation."

Michael Kimmelman, writing June 11, 2004 in The New York Times, stated that the exhibition is "a grossly inflated retrospective of the immensely popular American Impressionist Childe Hassam, he of the candied views of patriotic flag-draped New York during World War I." "Retrospectives," he continued, "are supposed to change one's notion of an artist, so I suppose you could say that this one succeeds by definitively ratcheting Hassam's reputation several notches downward." Hassam, he added, "stuck doggedly to other cheerful themes of Americana during his long, lucrative career - New England churches, coastal Maine during the summer, panoramas of Manhattan, nymphs cavorting on Long Island beaches - just as he stuck pretty much to the same ingratiating, occasionally cloying brand of Impressionism decades after Symbolism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and a slew ofother new-isms had come and sometimes gone."

"Actually," Mr. Kimmelman maintained, "American Impressionism was never very good to begin with, which may partly account for why Hassam, a zealous self-promoter who became increasingly cranky and jingoistic in his public remarks, felt he had to argue so violently to defend it."

While it is true that an awful lot of mediocre impressionist painting was produced in America, and by Hassam, Mr. Kimmelman's generality is too harsh. One could easily counter that Pissarro and Sisley did not always produce masterworks and that the second-tier French Impressionists like Le Sidaner, Martin and others could also be often quite "cloying." John Twachtman and William Merritt Chase produced quite a few masterworks that can hold their own and the widespread notion of the past few generations that only the "new" has merit is preposterous as it would negate many of the finest works of the Italian Renaissance. In America, Impressionism indulged in subtle variations on "themes," which is not to say that curmudgeons are by nature not conservative but that they are merely continuing to mine their fields. At the turn of the century and prior to the 1913 Armory Show, there was a surfeit of "pretty pictures" and far too many "ladies in white" in American galleries.

While this exhibition includes many of Hassam's best known works, which have appeared in many other exhibitions and in several other recent books on the artist, it also includes quite a few works that are startling and which make it hard to not be very impressed with Hassam despite being disappointed that he too often fell back into his own clichés and produced a lot of unpraiseworthy works.

"His case is very American," Mr. Kimmelman continued, "in that we feel something - the haute-bourgeois art market he had to court, or a prematurely closed mind, or a too-keen enjoyment of a comfortable and honored life - prevented him from doing full justice to his talent. He turned, first, from the city subjects that he had proclaimed his capture, and then, in the 1920's, to a stylized, muralistic Arcadia that was dim enough when Puvis de Chavannes was doing it."

Interestingly, the catalogue includes color reproductions of several of Hassam's late "Arcadia" pictures, but none are included in the exhibition itself, which is surprisingly since they are, in fact, among his better works, carrying on themes that were also explored by Arthur B. Davies and Louis Elshemus.

Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the July 12-9 edition of The New Yorker magazine (http://www,newyorker.com/critics/art/?040712craw_artworld), argued that “He was an energetic promoter as well as a practitioner…of poky variants of Impressionism which, having begun in response to Parisian innovation, persisted as bulwarks against further novelties….Hassam could be good enough to leave one exasperated by his penchant – it can seem a passion, even, for mediocrity…” "The prettiest Monet shares with the grittiest Cubist Picasso the blinking innocence of a newborn fact. It was the misery of American Impressionists to chase the look of French painting and yet remain numb to both its radical hedonism and its tough-minded gravity," Mr. Schjeldahl wrote.

"A Back Road," by Hassam

“A Back Road,” by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 31 ¼ by 25 inches, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Caroline H. Polhemus Fund, 1884

On the other hand, John Updike, the author, in a lengthy review of the exhibition in July 15, 2004 edition of The New York Review of Books, wrote that “His youthful, undertutored eye saw things that a more experienced painter might have skimmed past,” adding that “A Back Road (1884), with its watery ruts, grassy mane, and battered irregularity, makes most such byways in Impressionist paintings look like the Yellow Brick Road.”

"La Fruitière" by Hassam

“La Fruitière,” by Childe Hassam, oil on composition board, 14 ¼ by 10 ¼ inches, Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, circa 1888-9

“…his less academic moments are the ones to be treasured,” Updike continued: “the slashing, broad-brushed skirts and reflections in Promenade at Sunset, Paris (18888-1889); the brittle white petticoats of Mrs. Hassam and Her Sister (1889); the memorably misshapen tree of Peach Blossoms – Villiers-le-Bel (circa 1887); and the astonishing action painting of the turquoise half-walls and gumbo pumpkins of La Fruitière (circa 1888-1889).”

Indeed, his smaller works are generally more impressive than his large ones.

There is no question that the exhibition demonstrates that Hassam flirted with many different styles, many of which were directed and largely influenced by other artists, and that his oeuvre is extremely uneven and often mediocre.

If, however, one were to edit it down to say, the works reproduced in this article, one would come away with a much different impression.  Indeed, one might be quite awed, especially when one studies the catalogue and sees that many of his most interesting late Long Island works are not in the exhibition.

The works reproduced here are generally exceptions to his vast oeuvre, which makes them all the more puzzling.  They demonstrate great painterliness, bold and intriguing compositions, and considerable stylistic experimentation.

"The Old Fairbanks House, Dedham, Massachusetts" by Hassam

“The Old Fairbanks House, Dedham, Massachusetts,” by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 22 1/8 by 22 inches, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of Kate Talbot Hopkins, 1884

Mr. Updike noted that Hassam’s early watercolors such as “On the Deck,” demonstrate “a proficiency and composure not matched by an oil like “The Old Fairbanks House, Dedham, Massachusetts (circa 1884), which all but smothers the house itself in a slathering of dark-brown pigment and dabbles at the foreground grass rather ponderously.”  Slathering is a good description of Hassam’s viscous painting textures in this and “The Back Road,” but these two works actually are notable for their Courbet-esque somber palettes, strong compositions and rich surface treatments.  “The Old Fairbanks House,” furthermore, is very much in the style of Winslow Homer’s early genre oil studies, which are some of his finest works for their intensity of focus.

"On The Deck" by Hassam

“On The Deck,” by Childe Hassam, watercolor, 18 7/8 by 12 ¼ inches, Ms. Cheryl Chase and Mr. Stuart Bear, 1883

“On the Deck” is perhaps the finest Hassam watercolor in the exhibition as well as the most atypical.  Its askew composition and fine details are very effective.

"In the Park" by Hassam

“In The Park,” by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 12 3/4 by 16 3/8 inches, Lewis and Ali Sanders, 1889

“In the Park,” a 12 3/4 -by-16 3/8-inch oil on canvas in the collection of Lewis and Ali Sanders is perhaps Hassam’s finest “Impressionist” work.

Two of Hassam’s finest urban scenes differ substantially from French Impressionist counterparts in their format.  They are long horizontal compositions that are noticeably “ultra wide-angle,” in photography terminology.

"A Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston" by Hassam

“Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston,” oil on canvas, 26 1/8 by 48 inches, Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in honor of her Father, Maurice A. Scott, 1885

“Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston” in the collection of the Toledo Museum of Ohio is a 48-inch-wide oil on canvas that was executed in 1885. In his review. Mr. Updike correctly noted that it "is a shimmering atmospheric study, gray and a muted brick-red, of a wide city space in the rain which compares favorably, for a plausibility of tone and perspective, with Gustave Caillebotte's iconic Paris Street: Rainy Day, of a decade before.

"Une Averse - rue Bonaparte" by Hassam

“Une Averse – rue Bonaparte,” by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas,  40 3/8 by 77 1/2 inches, Terra Foundation for the Arts, Chicago, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1887

Even more dramatic and much more painterly is “Une Averse –rue Bonaparate,” painted two years later by Hassam in Paris.  It is in the Daniel J. Terra Collection of the Terra Foundation for the Arts in Chicago.  The 77 1/2-inch wide oil on canvas is quite monumental in conception with a wonderful sense of space accented by the couple in the foreground at the lower right, the receding line of carriages in the middle and the poster-strewn wall at the left.

In his review, Mr. Updike notes that this was Hassam's first "Salon piece," and is "imposing but ungainly." "The hard-pressed working couple, presumably man and daughter, in the forefront make it look like a piece of protest art. As such it wins Ms. Weinberg's praise for signaling 'the coexistence of hardship and prosperity in the modern city and the demise of rural traditions that accompanied urban growth.' Sociologically correct it may be, but its jaundiced colors look willfully dull, and the gleam of we streets doesn't have the magic it did back in freshly paved South Boston. The line of hackney coaches with their horses draws forth his best painting."

While it is true that the old man pulling his cart accompanied by a young girl is in dramatic contrast with the well-dressed coach drivers standing together at the left and the umbrella-carrying people on the right, this is a majestic work and truly superb because of its painterliness and its composition much more than any sociological or political insights some might care to make.

"The Rose Girl" by Hassam

“The Rose Girl,” by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas with gold leaf, center panel, 21 3/4 by 30 1/8 inches, side panels, 151/4 by 6 1/4 inches each, Senator and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller IV, circa 1888

In his review, Mr. Updike that "The Rose Girl" has an "unusual triple frame (Hassam took an active hand in his frames, following Whistler's innovations, which favored broad bands of plain gilding)," adding that it "seems all too Pre-Raphaelite; the girl's uplifted, Joan-of-Arc face refuses to jell with either the tumbled flowers in front of her or the weirdly collagist street scene behind."

One of the many essays in the catalogue, which was edited by H. Barbara Weinberg, the museum's Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, is devoted entirely to Hassam's framing.

The small side panels of "The Rose Girl" are exquisite floral still lifes against a gold background, which is quite unusual. The center painting is extremely lush and while its background might be considered a "weirdly collagist street scene," it is a disconcerting and very intriguing composition. The woman stands in front of a carriage that is preceding another drawn by at least three horses further back. The horses are in focus but people on the other side of the street in the distance are not. The left edge of the center painting is quite an abstract study in curves that are also in tight focus, but the back top of the carriage is out of focus probably because it is composed of reflections on the carriage's windows. Was this center painting at one time a larger composition?

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"In The Rose Girl..., a flower vendor offering a bouquet to the viewer becomes almost heroic. Like the mirror behind the barmaid in Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère..., the reflective coach windows that set off the young woman's head implicate space in front of the picture plane. A critic for The New York Times noted in 1890: 'The versatility of Mr. Child Hassam is indeed surprising. The Rose Girl is a composition in the manner of James Tissot, the flower girl and her masses of flowers, the yellow cab and passers-by being painted with a solid insistence not generally found in Mr. Hassam's other works.' Hassam quoted the golden panels of the coach's doors in flower-filled gilded side panels and placed all three element within what the same critic described as 'a wonderful frame,' which has since been replaced. The triptych format and gilding in The Rose Girl imply that a modern secular subject is as worthy as the sacred figures who appear in religious altarpieces."

"Geraniums" by Hassam

“Geraniums,” by Childe Hassam,  oil on canvas, 18 1/4 by 13 inches, The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY, 1888-9

Hassam was capable of very complex compositions. "Geraniums," an 1888-9 oil on canvas in the collection of The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York, is such a work and as lovely an Impressionist painting as he ever executed.

"Glouchester" by Hassam

“Gloucester,” by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 32 inches square, Collection of The Newark Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. Russell Parsons, 1899

"Around the turn of the century," Mr. Schjeldahl wrote in his review, "Hassam plainly had it in him to be an exciting painter. My favorite works in the Met show are two views across Gloucester Harbor, painted in 1899: parfaits with bands of shimmering city and boat-busy water on squarish canvases. The format - in effect, a squeezed panorama - vitalizes Hassam's strengths of summarizing notation and delicately smoldering color, which runs here, as it often does, to luminous yellows and warm blues and greens. The paintings convey personal enthusiams for a practical-minded place that may be oblivious of its own drowsily cascading summertime splendor. There is a self-forgetful surfeit of pleasures, more than the eye and mind can readily handle. This quality is rare in Hassam, who commonly doles out rapture in conventional spoonfuls, laced with self-conscious, illustrational emphases that are as irksome as explanations of a joke."

"The Evening Star" by Hassam

“The Evening Star,” by Childe Hassam, pastel on tan paper, 20 by 24 inches, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, 1891

"The Evening Star" is a large pastel by Hassam that evokes Whistler but is very, very abstract, especially for an 1891 work.

"The West Wind, Isles of Shoals" by Hassam

“The West Wind, Isles of Shoals,” by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 15 by 22 inches, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, 1901

One of Hassam's most abstract works is "The West Wind, Isles of Shoals," which was executed in 1901 and is in the Yale Collection of American Literature Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The catalogue notes its "exhilarating spaciousness," adding that "Hassam produced economical, near-abstract works of this kind periodically throughout his years at Appledore."

"Sunset at Sea" by Hassam

“Sunset at Sea,” by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 34 inches square, Collection of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Monroe Geller, 1911

"The spare Sunset at Sea...injects a Whistlerian composition with intense Postimpressionist color" the catalogue continued, adding that "The stylization of clouds and water into decorative striations recalls Georges Seurat's Lighthouse at Honfleur....Although Hassam did not adopt Seurat's Pointillist brushstroke, he exploited the coarse weave of the canvas to catch dabs of brilliant pigment, creating a tapestry of color like that produced by his French contemporary.

"The Little Cobbler's Shop" by Hassam

“Little Cobbler’s Shop,” by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 16 1/2 by 30 3/8 inches, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts, gift of anonymous donor, by exchange, 1912

One of Hassam's more charming and intimate urban scenes is "Little Cobbler's Shop" in the collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachesetts. The catalogue notes that while the 1912 picture "strikes a modern note by featuring at its center the Alwyn Auto School, located at 912 Seventh Avenue at about Fifty-eighth Street (around the corner from Hassam's studio), the intimacy of the view implies that the city can still feel like a small harmonious village." The "melancholy tone," however, the catalogue continued, "expresses Hassam's waning appreciation of New York's dynamism."

"Red Cross Drive, May 1918 (Celebration Day)" by Hassam

“Red Cross Drive, May 1918 (Celebration Day),” by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 35 1/2 by 23 1/2 inches, May Family Collection, Christopher T. May, Sterling A. May, Meredith M. Smith, Laura May, Trustees, 1918

"Wartime emotion," Mr. Schjeldahl correctly commented in his review, "moved Hassam to eloquence, which entailed something like true Impressionism at last. The blurred and splintered forms of his flag paintings shiver ecstatically, piling up compositions that collapse perspective into the forward-rushing, all-at-once tumult of a fever dream. American modern painting would not consistently command such sophisticated ardor until the advent of Abstract Expressionism, with its incalculable debt to Ellis Island."

While most of this famous series prominently features the American flag, perhaps the most successful, "Red Cross Drive, May 1918 (Celebration Day)," in the May Family Collection, does not. It is festive and very monumental and the highly impressionist treatment of the hordes of pedestrians on the festooned streets is superb.

"Long Island Pebbles and Fruit" by Hassam

“Long Island Pebbles and Fruit,” by Childe Hassam, oil on wood panel, 23 1/2 by 56 1/2 inches, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, frame: stained and painted wood, designed and made by Childe Hassam, 1931

"Long Island Pebbles and Fruit," a 1931 still life by Hassam, is a remarkable work that combines Cézannesque and Gauguinesque still-life treatments with a very unusual panoramic composition. This very beautiful work, furthermore, has a great frame handpainted by the artist. In discussing a different but somewhat similar still life by Hassam of pears, Mr. Schjeldahl wrote in his review that it "furtively emulates Cézanne and van Gogh," adding that "Hassam had eyes to see possibilities that he lacked the guts to embrace." More interestingly, perhaps, is that he had the guts not to embrace. Cézanne and van Gogh would probably have thought that Long Island pebbles were quite ennobled by Hassam.

"Golden Afternoon" by Hassam

"Golden Afternoon," by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 30 1/8 by 40 3/8 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1911

While Hassam depicted a lot of urban scenes, a lot of country churches and barns, golf courses, and coastal scenes, pure landscapes were relatively uncommon in his oeuvre. "Golden Afternoon," however, is yet another instance of Hassam's virtuosity that demonstrated he was capable of fine work in many different genres. A strong and original composition that is almost Tonalist in temperament, "Golden Afternoon" was executed in 1911. The 30 1/8-by-40 3/8 inch oil on canvas is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For those who have seen hundreds of Hassams over the decades and been a bit annoyed at his lofty reputation, this exhibition is an eye-opener for many of the works illustrated here are not all that familiar and they reveal an artist of real talent. Most of the critics are correct that that talent was largely squandered, but if an artist only creates one or a handful, or a couple of dozen wonderful works then all is not lost.

Click here to go to Amazon.com catalogue where the hardcover catalogue is available for 32 percent off its list price of $65.

 

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