Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935) Part II

Starting in the mid-1890’s, Hassam also made summer painting excursions to Gloucester, Massachusetts; Cos Cob, Connecticut; and Old Lyme, Connecticut; all of them by the sea but each presenting unique aspects for painting. Even though his sales were good, Hassam continued to take on commercial work, including for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. After a trip to Havana, Cuba, Hassam returned to New York and had his first major one-man auction show at the American Art Galleries in 1896, featuring over two hundred works, spanning his entire career to date. The New York Times observed that of the “steadily increasing band of impressionists, Mr. Hassam is a priest high in the councils.”

Most critics were convinced that he had taken Impressionism too far, one stating that “his key of color has been rising higher and higher until it simply screeches. His impression has been growing more and more bleary-eyed.” Another critic declared, “He ignores the public that dearly loves a picture.” What proved true were the low prices buyers were willing to pay. Hassam realized less than $50 per picture at auction. Other American artists were also having a difficult time, during the general economic slump of 1896, and Hassam decided to leave the depressing scene behind and he returned to Europe.

The couple first sailed to Naples, then went on Rome and Florence. Though staying firmly in the Impressionists corner, he spent much time in galleries and churches studying the Old Masters. The Hassams arrived in Paris in the spring, and then traveled on to England. He continued producing paintings with a very light palette.

Back in New York in 1897, Hassam took part in the secession of Impressionists from the Society of American Artists, forming a new society known as The Ten. The group was energized if not initiated by Hassam, who was among the most radical of members. Their first show at the Durand-Ruel Gallery featured seven of his new European works. Critics dismissed his new work as “experimental” and “quite incomprehensible”. Though still interested in including figures in his urban paintings, his new summer works done at Gloucester Harbor, Newport, Old Lyme, and other New England locales show increasing attention to pure landscapes and buildings. As his colors became paler and closer in tone to Monet’s, which many viewers found unsettling and unfathomable, he was asked how he came up with a particular palette, and he responded unmysteriously, “subjects suggest to me a color scheme and I just paint.”

Hassam was astute in marketing his work, and was represented by dealers and museums in several cities and abroad; so despite the negative critics and the conservative buyers, he did manage to keep selling and painting without having to resort to teaching in order to survive financially. A colleague described Hassam as an artist “with a keen knowledge of distribution, the tactical ability to place his work.” As the new century began, some three decades after the Impressionists first exhibitions in France, Impressionism finally gained a legitimacy in the American art community, and Hassam began to sell to major museums and receive jury awards and medals, vindicating his belief in his vision. In 1906, he was elected Academician of the National Academy of Design.

After a brief period of depression and drinking as part of an apparent mid-life crisis, the forty-five year old Hassam then committed himself to a healthier life style, including swimming. During this time he felt a spiritual and artistic rejuvenation and he painted some Neo-Classical subjects, including nudes in outdoor settings. His urban subjects began to diminish and he confessed that he was tiring of city life-as bustling subways, elevated trains, and motor buses supplanted the graciousness of the horse-drawn scenes he was so fond of capturing in earlier times. The architecture of the city changed as well. Stately mansions gave way to skyscrapers, which he admitted had its own artistic appeal, “One must grant of course that if taken individually a skyscraper is not much of a marvel of art as a wildly formed architectural freak. It is when taken in groups with their zig zag outlines towering against the sky and melting tenderly into the distance that the skyscrapers are truly beautiful.” Hassam urban paintings now take on a higher perspective and humans shrink in size accordingly, as illustrated in Lower Manhattan (1907). He began to spend only his winters in New York and traveled the balance of the year, calling himself “the Marco Polo of the painters.” In 1904 and 1908, he traveled to Oregon and was stimulated by new subjects and diverse views, frequently working out-of-doors with fellow artist C. E. S. Wood. He produced over 100 paintings, pastels, and watercolors of the High Desert, the rugged coast, the Cascades, scenes of Portland, even nudes in idealized landscapes (a series of bathers comparable to those of Symbolist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes). As was his normal method, he adapted his style and colors to the subject at hand and the mood of place, but always in the Impressionist vein.

With the art market now eagerly accepting his work, by 1909 Hassam was enjoying great success, earning as much as $6,000 per painting. His close friend and fellow artist J. Alden Weir commented to another artist, “Our mutual friend Hassam has been in the greatest of luck and merited success. He sold his apartment studio and has sold more pictures this winter, I think, than ever before and is really on the crest of the wave. So he goes around with a crisp, cheerful air.”

The Hassams returned to Europe in 1910 to find Paris much changed, “The town is all torn up like New York. Much building going on. They out American the Americans!” In the midst of the vibrant city, Hassam painted July Fourteenth, Rue Daunou during the Bastille Day celebrations, a forerunner of his famous Flag series (see below).

When he came back to New York, Hassam began a series of “window” paintings which he continued until the 1920’s, usually featuring a contemplative female model in a flowered kimono before a light-filled curtained or open window, as in The Goldfish Window (1916). The scenes were popular with museums and quickly snapped up. Hassam was especially prolific and energetic in the 1910-1920 period causing one critic to comment, “Think of the appalling number of Hassam pictures there will be in the world by the time the man is seventy years old!” In reality, Hassam did produce thousands of works in nearly every medium during his life. Where his friend Weir might paint six canvases in a season, Hassam would do forty.

During that period he also returned to watercolors and oils of coastal scenes, as exemplified by The South Ledges, Appledore (1913), which employs an unusually balanced division of sea and rocks diagonally across a nearly square canvas, giving equal weight to sea and land, water and rock. He also produced some still-life paintings.

Hassam had six paintings on display at the famous Armory Show of 1913, where Impressionism was finally viewed as mainstream and nearly an historical style, and displaced by the clamor over the radical revolution of Cubism, fresh from Europe. He and Weir were the oldest exhibitors, nicknamed at a press dinner as “the mammoth and the mastodon of American Art”. Hassam viewed the new art trends from abroad with alarm, stating “this is the age of quacks, and quackery, and New York City is their objective point.” He was also displeased that the Armory Show took away attention from the latest exhibits of The Ten.

To be continued in part III

See the beginning of this article in part I

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