Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935) Part I

Frederick Childe Hassam

Frederick Childe Hassam

Frederick Childe Hassam was born in his family home in a suburb of Boston in 1859. His father Frederick was a cutlery merchant and descended from a long line of New Englanders, while his mother Rosa was a native of Maine. He demonstrated an interest in art early in his life. He had his first lessons in drawing and watercolor while attending the Mather public school, but his parents took little notice of his nascent talent.

A disastrous fire in November 1872 wiped out much of Boston’s commercial district including his father’s business. To help out the family, Hassam dropped out of high school and his father lined up a job for him in the accounting department of publisher Little Brown & Company. His poor aptitude for figures, however, convinced his father to allow him to pursue an art career, and Hassam found employment with George Johnson, a wood engraver. He quickly proved an adept draftsman (“draughtsman” in the Boston directory) and he produced designs for commercial engravings, such as images for letterheads and newspapers. Around 1879, Hassam began creating his earliest oil paintings but his preferred medium was watercolors, mostly outdoor studies.

In 1882, Hassam became a free-lance illustrator, (known as a “black-and-white man” in the trade), and established his first studio. He specialized in illustrating children’s stories for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s Monthly magazine, and The Century. He continued to develop his technique while attended drawing classes at the Lowell Institute, a division of MIT, and at the Boston Art Club, where he took life painting classes.

By 1882, Hassam was exhibiting publicly and had his first solo exhibition, of watercolors, at the Williams and Everett Gallery in Boston. The following year, his friend Celia Thaxter convinced him to drop his first name and thereafter he was known simply as “Childe Hassam”. He also began to add a crescent symbol in front of his signature, whose meaning is not known.

Having had relatively little formal art training, Hassam was advised by his friend (and fellow Boston Art Club member) Edmund H. Garrett to take a “study trip” with him to Europe during the summer of 1883. Hassam and Garrett traveled through out Great Britain, The Netherlands, France, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, studying the old masters together and creating watercolors of the European countryside. He was particularly impressed with the watercolors of J. M. W. Turner. Sixty-seven of the watercolors Hassam did on his trip formed the basis of his second exhibition in 1884. Hassam married Kathleen Doan after his return.

After returning to Boston, Hassam resumed his studio illustration and in good weather produced landscapes out-of-doors. He also joined the “Paint and Clay Club”, expanding his contacts in the art community, which included prominent critics and “the readiest and smartest of our younger generation of artists, illustrators, sculptors, and decorators-the nearest thing to Bohemia that Boston can boast.” Friends found him to be energetic, robust, outgoing, and unassuming, capable of self-mockery and considerate acts, but he could be argumentative and wickedly witty against the art community who opposed him. Hassam was particularly influenced by the circle of William Morris Hunt, who like the great French landscapist Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, emphasized the Barbizon tradition of working directly from nature. He absorbed their credo that “Atmosphere and light are the great things to work for in landscape painting.” In 1885, a noted critic stated, in part responding to Hassam’s early oil painting A Back Road (1884), “the Boston taste for landscape painting, founded on this sound French school, is the one vital, positive, productive, and distinctive tendency among our artists today…the truth is poetry enough for these radicals of the new school. It is a healthy, manly muscular kind of art.”

By the mid-1880’s, Hassam began painting cityscapes in nearby locales, his Boston Common at Twilight (1885) being one of his first. He joined a few other progressive American artists who were taking to heart the advice of French academic master Jean-Leon Gerome, who had a conversion from his traditional subject matter and told his American peers, “Look around you and paint what you see. Forget the Beaux-Arts and the models and render the intense life which surrounds you and be assured that the Brooklyn Bridge is worth the Colosseum of Rome and that modern America is as fine as the bric-a-brac of antiquity.” However, one Boston critics firmly rejected his urban choice of subject as “very pleasant, but not art.” Although he had shown steady improvement in his oil painting, before letting go of illustration Hassam decided to return to Paris with his wife. Through out their life together, she ran the household, arranged travel, and attended to other domestic tasks, but little is known about their private life. Hassam’s success with illustration was sufficient to allow the couple to find a well-located apartment/studio with a maid near Place Pigalle, the center of the Parisian art community. With the exception of fellow American artist Frank Boggs, the couple lived among the French and socialized little with other American artists studying abroad.

Hassam took classes in figure drawing and painting at the Academie Julian. Although he took advantage of the formal drawing classes with Gustave Boulanger and Jules Joseph Lefebvre, he quickly moved on to his own self-study, finding that “The Julian academy is the personification of routine… [academic training] crushes all originality out of growing men. It tends to put them in a rut and it keeps them in it”, preferring instead, “my own method in the same degree.” His first Parisian works were street scenes, employing a mostly brown palette, and he sent these works back to Boston for sale, which combined with older watercolors provided the couple with sufficient income to sustain their stay abroad.

In the autumn of 1887, Hassam painted two versions of Grand Prix Day, employing a breakthrough change of palette. Suddenly, he was laying softer, more diffuse colors to canvas, similar to the French Impressionists, creating scenes full of light, done with freer brush strokes. It is likely that he was inspired from French Impressionist paintings he had viewed in museums and exhibitions, though he did not meet any of these artists.

The sudden shift expanded his options and his range. Through the 1890’s, his technique veered increasingly toward Impressionism in both oil and watercolor, even as the movement itself was giving way to Post-Impressionism and Fauvism. During his European stay, he continued to favor street and horse scenes, avoiding some of the other favorite depictions of the Impressionists, such as opera, cabaret, theater, and boating. He also painted garden and “flower girl” scenes, some featuring his wife, including Geraniums (1888) which he presented at the Salon exhibition that year. He managed to exhibit at all three Salon shows during his Paris stay but won no medals.

The work he sent home was attracting attention too, as one reviewer commented, “It is refreshing to note that Mr. Hassam, in the midst of so many good, bad, and indifferent art currents, seems to be paddling his own canoe with a good deal of independence and method. When his Boston pictures of three years ago are compared with the more recent work it may be seen how he has progressed.” Hassam contributed four paintings to the Exposition Universale of 1889 in Paris, winning a bronze medal. At that time, he remarked on the emergence of progressive American artists who studied abroad but who did not succumb to French traditions:

“The American Section has convinced me for ever of the capability of Americans to claim a school. Inness, Whistler, Sargent and plenty of Americans just as well able to cope in their own chosen line with anything done over here. An artist should paint his own time and treat nature as he feels it, not repeat the same stupidities of his predecessors. The men who have made success today are the men who have got out of the rut.”

As for the French Impressionists, he wrote “Even Claude Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and the school of extreme Impressionists do some things that are charming and that will live.” Later, he would be called an “extreme Impressionist” himself. His only “direct” contact with a French Impressionist artist was when Hassam took over Renoir’s former studio and found some of the painter’s oil sketches left behind, “I did not know anything about Renoir or care anything about Renoir. I looked at these experiments in pure color and saw it was what I was trying to do myself.”

The Hassams returned to America and settled in New York City in 1889, the art capital of the U. S., to get nearer important artists, dealers and collectors. He found a studio apartment at Fifth Avenue and Seventeenth, a view he painted in one of his first New York oils, Fifth Avenue in Winter. The fashionable street was traveled at that time by horse-drawn carriages and trolleys. It was one of his favorite paintings and he exhibited it several times. It skillfully uses a distinctive dark palette of blacks and browns (normally considered “forbidden colors” by strict Impressionists) to create a winter urban panorama, that Le Figaro praised for its “American character”. But then for his Washington Arch in Spring (1890) he demonstrates a bright pastel palette suffused with white similar to what Monet might have employed.

He became close friends with fellow Impressionist artists J. Alden Weir and John Henry Twachtman, whom he met through the American Water Color Society, and over the following months he made many connections in the art community through other art societies and social clubs. In several exhibitions and shows, he contributed work he had painted in Europe. Hassam enthusiastically painted the genteel urban atmosphere of New York that he encountered within walking distance of his apartment, and avoided the squalor of the lower-class neighborhoods. He proclaimed that “New York is the most beautiful city in the world. There is no boulevard in all Paris that compares to our own Fifth Avenue the average American still fails to appreciate the beauty of his own country.” He captured well-dressed men in bowler hats and top hats, fashionable women and children out and about, and horse-drawn cabs slowly making their way along crowded thoroughfares lined by commercial buildings (which were generally less than six stories high at that time). For Hassam, his primary focus would forever continue to be “humanity in motion”. He never doubted his own artistic development and his subjects, remaining confident in his instinctual choices throughout his life.

It was through Theodore Robinson, who was working alternatively in America and France, that he, Twachtman, and Weir kept in close touch with Monet who was residing in Giverny at the time. The four Americans represented the core of American Impressionism, dedicated to painting what was real for them, what was familiar and close at hand, out-of-doors when possible, and with the immediacy of light and shadow-which though exaggerated and falsely colored at times-makes a purposeful impact or impression. The urban scene provided its own unique atmosphere and light, one which Hassam found “capable of the most astounding effects” and as picturesque as any seaside scene. The challenge for the urban Impressionist, however, was that activity moved very quickly, and therefore, getting down a complete impression in oil was next to impossible. To adapt to this, Hassam would find a suitable location, make sketches of the components of his planned painting, then return to the studio to construct a total impression which was in actuality a composite of smaller scenes.

During the summers, he would work in a more typical Impressionist location, such as Appledore Island, the largest of the Isles of Shoals off New Hampshire, then famous for its artist’s colony. Social life on the island revolved around the salon of poetess Celia Thaxter. The group was a “jolly, refined, interesting and artistic set of people like one large family.” There Hassam recalled, “I spent some of my pleasantest summers (and) where I met the best people in the country.” Hassam’s subjects for his paintings included Thaxter’s flower garden, the rocky landscape, and some interior scenes rendered with his most impressionistic brush strokes to date. In Impressionist fashion, he applied his colors “perfectly clear out of the tube” to unprimed canvas without pre-mixing. Artists displayed their work in her salon and were exposed to wealthy buyers staying on the island. Thaxter died in 1894, and in tribute Hassam painted her parlor in The Room of Flowers.

To be continued in part II, part III

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