Frederick Childe Hassam  (1859-1935)
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John Baur, curator of the important 1937 survey Leaders of American Impressionism, grouped Childe Hassam with Mary Cassatt as the “pioneer Impressionists [who had] contributed most to the inauguration and development of Impressionism in America.” [As quoted in Barbara Weinberg, Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, p. 19] Of the handful of painters that brought Impressionism to America, Hassam was most independent-minded. While his development from a conventional mode to a radical Impressionism followed study in Europe, Hassam spent more time painting from nature than studying the works of European masters, old or new. His work was honed in commercial illustration as well as in French ateliers, but his formal formal arts was spotty and sporadic. He admired his countrymen John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, but modeled himself only after their highly self-confident personalities. Tremendously successful by the turn of the century, Hassam also secured a place of admiration in the eyes of the early American modernists and twentieth century collectors. His “extreme Impressionism” liberated color and form, but his bold and expansive use of brushstroke made his work influential well after the fashion for American Impressionism had passed. Some of his most celebrated works – the “flag” paintings of the World War I years—are came late in his career, and well after the famous Armory Show had heralded modernism’s raucous ascent. Few painters were greeted as enthusiastically in the twentieth century as they were in the nineteenth, but Hassam’s single-minded approach to painting has made him relevant of many generations.

Born Frederick Childe Hassam in 1859 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Hassam began work as a commercial illustrator, rendering images for magazines like Scribner’s and Harper’s Weekly in 1880. Around the same time, he began going by his more exotic-sounding middle name – a move to set himself apart that would set the tone for the rest of his life. Hassam possessed an overwhelming strength in application of color, but he continued working in black-and-white media, from ink to etching, his entire career. During these working years, Hassam cobbled together a ramshackle education, taking classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, but his father’s troubled finances ruled out the possibility of full-time study. His talents were immediately noticed, and by 1886, he decided to commit himself to fine art. He later reminisced of the end of his commercial illustration, “I said to myself if you’re going to paint let’s stop. So I stopped.” [Ibid, p. 53] It may not have been as abrupt as he later described it, but certainly Hassam committed himself to his own education in trips to Europe: first to England in 1883, where he admired the work of Turner; then for a three-year stint in Paris studying at the Academie Julian, from 1886-1889, and another year-long trip in 1896-97. He later claimed to have put in serious effort abroad, but he also recorded spending more time studying nature and working outdoors than participating in a traditional curriculum. Whatever his practices abroad, he returned a both a full-fledged impressionist. Just as important, his style was decidedly his own. In 1889, he settled in New York where the urban observations of his Boston years melded with the staccato stroke and chromatic impressionist palette.

By the turn of the century, an important enclave of American Impressionism had developed in and around Boston. The Ten, as they were called, included J. Alden Weir, Willard Metcalf, William Merritt Chase, Frank Benson—the best practitioners of American Impressionism working mainly around Boston. Hassam, who had played an instrumental role both as innovator and ambassador for the idiom, helped found the group in 1897. In some ways, however, his temperament was more cosmopolitan than the genteel decorative aesthetic favored by the New England painters. His application of paint was more vigorous and frank. His compositions are often elegant, but he painted with a certain indifference to delicacy. His practice, and indeed the surface of his work, more closely resemble member of the New York group of Ashcan painters, The Eight – notably the work of Ernest Lawson. In spirit and subject matter, too, Hassam stood apart.  Peers in the field, William Paxton and Frank Benson, for instance, favored scenes of women idling on porches over urban scenes, while Hassam seemed to turn from saccharine arrangements in favor of a more complicated embrace of his surroundings. When America joined the Great War, in 1917, Hassam’s work took up the flag-lined avenues of New York. Hardly a front-line depiction, but this preoccupation with world affairs contrasts starkly with the retreat into rural beauty practiced by his peers. Regardless of Hassam’s lone-wolf status, he was also the only member to exhibit at every exhibition of the Ten.

In September, 1907, the painter wrote his friend Charles E. S. Wood, “I’ll be in the country somewhere through October.” That nebulous country ‘somewhere’ included the Catskills, Cos Cob, and Old Lyme, Connecticut. [Ibid., p. 370] Hassam spent many seasons in Connecticut, beginning in 1890, but not until the years of 1903-09 did he hit his stride in Old Lyme. Florence Griswold gave her house in Old Lyme over to artist’s use—the house is today part of the Florence Griswold Museum—as well as for the annual summer exhibition of work by the growing colony, beginning in 1902. Hassam first stayed at the Griswold home in 1903, and by all accounts enjoyed tremendous success, both commercial and critical. “Hassam’s art reached its peak when he found in the New England freshness just the note that vibrated in sympathy with his delicately happy temperament,” wrote the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s A. Hyatt Mayor, in 1940. [Ibid., p. 7] Old Lyme was a sort of Yankee Barbizon enclave, where several of the Ten practiced the provincial French Impressionist manner. As the Old Lyme summer show quickly became a destination for audiences from New York, New Haven, Hartford, and Boston, Hassam sold steadily for the duration of his tenure there.

Hassam would later be praised amid the rise of modern art, but he was highly critical of the radical transformation in painting in the years to follow. He participated in the 1913 Armory Show—possibly the oldest artist on view—but spoke bitterly of the new crowd of artists, levying special contempt upon “designing foreign dealers.” [Ibid., p. 18] He was vitriolic in his defense of American painting “every whit as good and usually better than the Europeans,” and to some extent this meant insulating himself from the avant garde developments in painting that were filtering in from Europe. Really his contempt was directed at conformist tastemakers and peddlers of cheap imitation, for indeed he had been only recently one of these revolutionary upstarts making “incompetent” pictures: his friend, the western painter Frederic Remington, once remarked of a more daring Hassam painting, “I have an aunt up state who can knit a better picture than that.” [Ibid. p. 13] In 1932, the Metropolitan Museum produced a series of short films on the important artists of the day – the first in the series was devoted to Childe Hassam. History has borne out Hassam as one of the great connective strands between nineteenth century painting, introducing Impressionism and moving American painting into the twentieth century.