Today I am looking at the life of the nineteenth century American painter, and an important illustrator during the “golden age” of American illustration in the 1880s and 1890s. He was a leading American Impressionist, although he baulked at that “title”. Let me introduce you to Frederick Childe Hassam.
Frederick Childe Hassam was born on October 17th 1859 in the family home on Olney Street on Meeting House Hill, Dorchester, the upper middle-class suburb of Boston. He was the son of Frederick Fitch Hassam and Rosa Delia Hassam (née Hawthorne) who hailed from Maine. His father, a Boston merchant and hardware store owner, collected Americana well before this hobby became a popular pastime and he passed this interest in history along to his son. Hassam was educated at Dorchester’s Meeting House Hill School and Dorchester High School, where he studied French, German, Latin and Greek while playing several sports. Childe had his first lessons in drawing and watercolour whilst a pupil at the Mather public school in Dorchester, although his parents showed little interest in his art.
The family’s fortunes changed dramatically on November 9th 1872 with the sudden outbreak of fire in the basement of a commercial warehouse in the city. The fire burnt for twelve hours and in that time had destroyed 65 acres of Boston’s downtown, 776 buildings and much of the financial district, including Childe Hassam’s father’s business. For financial reasons, Childe had to drop out of high school without qualifying, and get a job, so as to help his family in their time of dwindling finances. His father arranged for his son to work in the accounting department of publisher Little Brown & Company, but his lack of ability to work with figures soon ended that career. Childe had talked to his parents about his love of painting and sketching and eventually persuaded his father to allow him to take up an artistic career. Childe Hassam managed to secure a position as an apprentice wood engraver with George Johnson. In a short time, Childe had proved himself to be an accomplished draughtsman producing designs for commercial engravings such as images for letterheads and newspapers.
It was around 1879 that Hassam began painting in oil but his favourite medium was watercolours. Childe Hassam’s initial formal art studies began in 1878 when he joined the Boston Art Club. The institution was founded in 1854 by local artists in order to instigate a democratic organization where there would be a collaboration in the promotion, selling and education of art. From there he enrolled at the Lowell Institute in Boston which ran classes in freehand practical design.
In 1882, Childe Hassam took part in his first public group exhibition at the Boston Art Club. Other artists at the Boston Art Club, at that time were nationally prominent painters such as William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri, Winslow Homer, Maurice Prendergast, and John Singer Sargent. Following his success at this exhibition Childe Hassam submitted some of his watercolour paintings for his first solo exhibition held at the William & Everett Gallery in Boston.
In 1882, Hassam became a freelance illustrator and founded his first studio. His illustration forte was his illustration of children’s stories for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s Monthly magazine, and The Century. He continued to develop his technique while he attended the drawing classes at the Lowell Institute, which was a division of MIT, and at the Boston Art Club, where he took life painting classes.
The following year, his friend Celia Thaxter convinced him to drop his first name, Frederick, and thereafter he was known simply as “Childe Hassam”. He also began to add a crescent symbol in front of his signature.
Because of his formal art training was limited he was advised that he should travel to Europe and enhance his artistic knowledge. The advice came from fellow Boston Art Club member, Edmund Henry Garrett, an American illustrator, bookplate-maker, and author as well as a highly respected painter, who was renowned for his illustrations of the legends of King Arthur. Garrett persuaded Hassam to accompany him to Europe in the summer of 1883. The two travelled extensively through Great Britain, The Netherlands, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain and during their journey they would study the Old Masters at various museums and create watercolours of the various European landscapes. While in Paris he was very much influenced by the painterly brushstrokes and pure colours of the Impressionists and it was noticeable that around this time his palette brightened and he discovered a love for depicting city subjects which would stay with him all his life. In all, Childe Hassam completed sixty-seven watercolours and these were exhibited at his second one-man exhibition in 1884.
After a long courtship, Hassam married Montreal-born Kathleen Maude Doan in February 1884 and during their lifetime together, she organised the Hassam household, arranged all her husband’s travel itineraries and looked after the other domestic tasks. She featured in a number of his paintings including his 1888 work, Geraniums, which he presented at the Salon exhibition that year.
During the early 1880s, the couple lived in Boston, and Hassam became one of a small number of American artists to paint watercolours of urban street scenes. Although he believed that his paintings had improved, he decided to return to Paris and seek further artistic tuition. In 1886 he and Maud arrived at the French capital for the start of their three year stay and Hassam attended classes at the Académie Julian, where he studied under the influential instructors Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. To make ends meet Hassam would send his oil and watercolour painting back to Boston to be sold. The money he received for them was enough for he and Maud to afford to stay in Paris. During his time in Europe, he continued to prefer mundane street and horse scenes, shunning some of the other depictions favoured by the Impressionists, such as opera, cabaret, theatre, and boating.
In 1887 he completed his painting Le Jour de Grand Prix Day which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Whereas he normally painted using a darker more tonal palette, in this work he used light colours to encapsulate the impression of a bright sunny day. The setting was the journey to Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne and the Grand Prix de Paris horse race which was held annually in June at the Longchamp track. The affluent racegoers bedecked in their finery can be seen riding atop the horse-driven coaches which travel along the tree-lined avenue Bois de Boulogne, which is now Avenue Foch. In the top left of the painting we catch a glimpse of Arc de Triomphe. A slightly larger version of the painting, which is in the New Britain Museum of American Art collection, was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1888. Of the painting Childe Hassam said;
“…I am painting sunlight. . . a ‘four in hand’ and the crowds of fiacres filled with the well-dressed women who go to the ‘Grand Prix…”
He also liked to paint garden and “flower girl” scenes, some of which included a depiction of his wife, Maude, an example of which is his 1889 painting entitled Geraniums which he presented at the Salon exhibition that year. During his three-year stay in the French capital he managed to exhibit at all three Salon exhibitions.
The couple returned to America in 1889 and went to live in a New York City studio apartment a studio apartment at Fifth Avenue and Seventeenth Street. Hassam began making paintings and etchings of New York city. Hassam saw the city as a place of similar beauty and excitement to Paris especially in the fashionable neighbourhoods along Fifth Avenue and at Washington Square. It was from this apartment window that Hassam painted the view outside. His 1915 painting entitled Fifth Avenue Winter depicts the bustling Manhattan thoroughfare which was quickly becoming a popular shopping district around the time he made this work. His composition features flecks of colour and blurred forms to depict reflected light and rapid movement. The accelerated pace of modern city life is evoked by the depiction of the street full of streaming traffic, including two green double-decker buses at lower right. The fashionable street was the route taken at that time by horse-drawn carriages and trolley buses. It was one of his favourite paintings and he exhibited it several times. The work now hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Around 1892, Hassam painted a view of the busy thoroughfare in Winter. The work entitled Fifth Avenue in Winter now hangs at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art
Childe Hassam and his wife lived in New York for the rest of their lives. He would work on his illustrations in his studio and when, weather permitting, he would go out and paint landscapes en plein air. Not long after settling in the city, Childe Hassam became involved in the setting up of The New York Watercolour Club in 1890 and became its first president. The organisation, unlike the American Watercolor Society, accepted both men and women into its ranks and the Club’s first exhibition was held that year. The organisation’s exhibitions were jury-selected affairs and thus the standard of the works on show was much higher than other artistic societies. The New York Watercolor Club’s exhibitions were held in the building which was constructed as the result of the founding of the American Fine Arts Society at 215 West 57th Street in 1889. Other art organizations headquartered in the building were the American Federation of Arts, American Watercolor Society, Artists’ Aid Society, Mural Painters, and the Art Students League of New York. Its galleries also held National Academy of Design, Architectural exhibitions.
Hassam’s painting Washington Arch, Spring which he completed in 1893 is an example of why he was termed an Impressionist and also highlights his love of cityscapes and ones which depict the hustle and bustle of life on the tree-lined avenue settings which were often seen in French Impressionist paintings. The marble Roman triumphal arch is situated in Washington Square Park, in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of Lower Manhattan, New York City. The depiction of the Stanford White designed arch reminded Hassam’s of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Hassam lived just north of the Square, and so he was able to watch the various stages of its construction, transitioning from first a temporary wood and plaster structure, to the eventual beautiful marble structure which was completed in 1892. The depiction is unusual in a way as the Arch which is at the end of Fifth Avenue is partially blocked by trees. In the work, Hassam included several pedestrians along with a street cleaner and a horse-drawn carriage.
At the beginning of the 1890’s Childe Hassam focused a number of his paintings with floral depictions and many were set in the gardens of his friend, the New England poet, Celia Laighton Thaxter who lived with her father at his Appledore Hotel on the Isles of Shoals, a group of small islands and tidal ledges situated approximately 6 miles off the east coast of the United States, straddling the border of the states of Maine and New Hampshire. He painted images from Appledore Island. He said that he found the rocks and the sea are the few things that do not change and that they are wonderfully beautiful.
Among them is the 1901 view Coast Scene, Isles of Shoals, the first painting by Childe Hassam to enter the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. The oil painting is done in luminous colours, and depicts the remote Isles of Shoals off the rocky shoreline of New England, which was a favourite haunt of Childe Hassam at the end of the 19th century and where he painted a series of similar coastal scenes. Childe Hassam liked to journey out of the city and he loved to visit places such as Newport, Portsmouth, Old Lyme, Gloucester, and other New England and this urge to free himself from the bustling city made him decide to buy a summer residence.
Childe and Maude Hassam first visited East Hampton in 1898 at the invitation of his friend and fellow artist Gaines Ruger Donoho. During the next two decades the couple returned to Long Island during the spring and autumn as the guest of New York businessman Henry Pomroy. In 1919, Hassam and his wife Maude purchased Willow Bend, an eighteenth-century shingled cottage at 48 Egypt Lane. The house was sold to the Hassams by Donoho’s widow who lived next door. Childe Hassam moved into “Willow Bend” in May of 1920 and remained in the house until that October. This became their annual routine which they would maintain for the rest of his life. While in East Hampton, Hassam sought inspiration from his surroundings and found beauty in the local architecture, the uneven coastline, and the wild landscape of eastern Long Island. During his six month stays in East Hampton, Hassam produced a series of works that focused on his home and its surrounding landscape. Though Hassam rejected being associated with French Impressionists, there is an obvious influence seen in his painting Old House, East Hampton, a typical East Hampton clapboard home, with its rich colours and quick brushstrokes.
Hassam’s interest in flag subjects dates back to his time spent in Paris from 1886 to 1889. Inspired by the flags and banners displayed on Bastille Day in the area where he lived. Just Off the Avenue, Fifty-third Street, May 1916 is the first work in the flag series that Hassam painted during the First World War. The sun-dappled street, trees and façades of the grand brownstones are painted in a vibrant palette characteristic of Hassam’s technique at the height of his abilities. In the work. We see a refined residential street in New York, a favoured subject of the artist. Hassam depicts decorations for the patriotic parade that took place along Fifth Avenue and he has immersed the viewer in an atmosphere of nationalistic pride.
During the First World War Childe Hassam created his famous images of flags of the United States and its allies which some scholars have characterized as Hassam’s contribution to the war effort. One such painting was his 1917 work entitled Allies Day, May.
In 1920 Hassam received what he deemed to be the greatest honour of his career when he was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Academy is an honour society of the country’s 250 leading architects, artists, composers, and writers. Each year it elects new members as vacancies occur. When Childe Hassam died, he bequeathed several hundred artworks to the Academy.
Frederick Childe Hassam died in East Hampton, Long Island on August 27th 1935, aged 75. His wife Maude passed away eleven years later on October 13th 1946. She was 84.