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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.”
“…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
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.
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”
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,”
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”
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
“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.
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
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.
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."
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.
"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" is a large pastel by Hassam
that evokes Whistler but is very, very abstract, especially for
an 1891 work.
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."
"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.
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."
"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
"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.
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.
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.