Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 424 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)
Childe Hassam is a curious name, suggesting exotic antecedents; in truth, “Hassam” is a corruption of the English surname “Horsham,” and the future painter was named Frederick after his father and Childe (meaning a youth of noble birth, as in Byron’s Childe Harold) after an uncle. Frederick, born in 1859, early disposed of his given name—his earliest watercolors are signed “F. Childe Hassam”—and accepted from friends the nickname “Muley,” after Muley Abul Hassan, one of the potentates of Granada described in Washington Irving’s popular The Alhambra.
The painter, who had a swarthy complexion, further teased the Middle East by attaching a crescent to his signature. But no, he was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, attended the Mather School atop Meeting House Hill, and basked in his Anglo-Saxon pedigree; he became, as his talent hardened, a Wasp reactionary, spurning much of modernism and in his work glorifying the American flag, white-painted Protestant churches, and what William Dean Howells called “the smiling aspects of life,” as these aspects were found in well-preserved Yankee villages like Cos Cob, Old Lyme, and East Hampton. Like Howells, he was considered a regressive dinosaur in his old age, and his death brought on a collapse in reputation which neither the Library of America (in Howells’s case) nor the Metropolitan Museum, in its generous retrospective “Childe Hassam, American Impressionist,” can easily repair.
The show takes up eight rooms and intelligently concentrates on the early decades of Hassam’s lengthy and prolific career. The later decades, the catalog essay by Kimberly Orcutt explains, were taken up with a quixotic but brave neo-academism, involving stiff nudes in more or less real gardens—Spring on Long Island (Venus Genetrix) (1926), for example, shows a lanky naked lady strolling along a South Fork pathway in plain sight of a suspendered farmer sowing his seeds. Much of Hassam’s later production, unbought, was left to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, where its sales continue to fund the purchase and donation to museums of modern canvases that might set the donor spinning in his grave.
Hassam began, like Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper, as an illustrator. The loss of his father’s hardware business to fire in 1872 helped to propel him out of high school and into the offices of a wood engraver, George Johnson, where he designed letterheads and commercial logos before moving on to illustrations in a children’s magazine, Wide Awake, and the adult journals Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s Monthly, and Century. By the age of twenty-three he had an office on Boston’s School Street and listed himself as “artist”; he started to sell paintings in the early 1880s.
His art education was improvised and spotty—he never learned anatomy, it was said when he began to paint nudes. The early watercolors Country Road (1882), Old House, Nantucket (1882), Promenade (1883), and On the Deck (1883) show 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. Village Scene (1883– 1885), employing what would become a characteristic mix of architecture and flowers, is painted too conscientiously, with an anxious thickness.
However, a large oil sketch, French Peasant Girl (circa 1883), executed either during his first trip to Europe or shortly thereafter, shows a light, translucent touch, adventurously broad and flickering in its treatment. Hassam’s vigorous, even reckless, brush and his illustrator’s eye for an arresting image sustained his career and did much to ease this viewer’s suspicions that a full-fledged, 150-work (120 paintings, watercolors, and pastels, and some thirty prints) retrospective was a bit of a stretch. His youthful, undertutored eye saw things that a more experienced painter might have skimmed past. 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.
In 1884 Hassam married Kathleen Maude Doane and moved to Boston’s newly expanded but already fading South End; he began to paint his neighborhood, remembering years later, “The street was all paved in asphalt, and I used to think it very pretty when it was wet and shining, and caught the reflections of passing people and vehicles. I was always interested in the movements of humanity in the street.” Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston (1885) 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.
Hassam’s Boston Common at Twilight (1885–1886) is perhaps his masterpiece, and certainly one of the most-loved paintings in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Divided exactly in half, like an open book, it crowds onto its left-hand page the tall buildings and seething traffic of Tremont Street and the pedestrians treading a path worn in the snow at the Common’s edge; the right half holds only a few small birds, a tapering row of benches and another of elms, and a snow-covered expanse. In the west an orange glow through the trees signals the passing of sunset; city gloaming, the suspenseful moment as darkness descends and life moves to the lighted indoors, becomes elegiac.
The tender foreground trio, a mother and her two children feeding the park sparrows, is rendered with the slightly awkward formality that Hassam brought to the human figure, and they are saved by it from sentimentality and overanimation. The viewer has no doubt that the subject of the painting is the dying orange light that tinges this frozen but inhabited urban extent. Some of the best of Hassam’s copious painted tributes to New York City, such as Winter, Midnight (1894) and Late Afternoon, New York: Winter (1900), take fire, as it were, from a similar snow-shrouded moment, in which we feel Nature infiltrating and overshadowing a city, whose lights nevertheless continue to burn.
H. Barbara Weinberg, the chief curator of this exhibition as well as of the rather tendentious Realism and Impressionism show at the Met ten years ago, in her remarks at the press preview described Hassam as the American painter who went to Paris and brought back Impressionism; yet the room devoted to his three years studying and living in Paris, from 1886 to 1889, does not seem especially Impressionistic. Hassam had already absorbed, by transatlantic osmosis, the stabbing brushwork and plein-air approach of Monet and Pissarro, and by the late 1880s the movement had already sprouted the programmatic pointillism of Seurat. Hassam’s attention, to judge by his results, was as much focused on the relatively conservative school of painters known as the “juste-milieu,” the happy medium who, in Ms. Weinberg’s phrase, “used conservative styles to render Impressionist subjects.”
Hassam’s artistic temperament was too bold and impulsive to be thoroughly conservative, however. The decorous maiden of In the Garden (circa 1888–1889), for instance, daydreams amid the violence with which the painter has scrubbed in lavender lilacs above her head. The orderly geraniums of Geraniums (1888–1889) and their demure gardener are upstaged by the metal sprinkling cans in the foreground, rendered with an intent color-searching that recalls Cézanne. The Rose Girl (circa 1888), in its unusual triple frame (Hassam took an active hand in his frames, following Whistler’s innovations, which favored broad bands of plain gilding), 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.
Une Averse—rue Bonaparte (1887), Hassam’s first Salon piece, 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 wet 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. Hassam’s Paris sojourn is distinguished by some dazzling, dashingly painted horses and carriages, above all the one moving through the snow in Along the Seine, Winter (1887). Grand Prix Day (1887) brings a conclave of carriages into sunlight, and the union of brightness and solidity suggests Degas, as do the cut-off forms of Carriage Parade (1888).
Hassam, who turned thirty on his return voyage, was somewhat older than his fellow art students, and, already married, staider. He worked hard, up to a point, at the Académie Julian, but his less academic moments are the ones to be treasured: the slashing, broad-brushed skirts and reflections in Promenade at Sunset, Paris (1888–1889); the brittle white petticoats of Mrs. Hassam and Her Sister (1889); the memorably misshapen tree of Peach Blossoms—Villiers-le-Bel (circa 1887–1889); and the astonishing action painting of the turquoise half-walls and gumbo pumpkins of La Fruitière (circa 1888–1889).
Hassam returned to live not in Boston but in New York, of which he said, “To me New York is the most wonderful and most beautiful city in the world. All life is in it.” As such it was the ideal place in which to practice his credo of 1892:
I believe the man who will go down to posterity is the man who paints his own time and the scenes of every-day life around him…. A true historical painter, it seems to me, is one who paints the life he sees about him, and so makes a record of his own epoch.
Here, as skyscrapers replaced mansions and brick tenements, and electric- and gasoline-powered conveyances replaced horse-drawn carriages, he set up, in a succession of apartments and studios, his easel. He did not teach or accept many commissions; he manufactured products for galleries to sell. Small wonder that an assembly-line quality dulls the voluminous work with which he supported himself and Maude in the style of a northeastern grandee. A certain haste and scratchiness appear, and bits of blank canvas peep through. As the century turns, his franchise as—as one critic said in 1892—New York’s “street painter par excellence” lapses in favor of brooding apartment-bound women in kimonos and negligées, of halcyon New England scenes, of endless flowers and rocks in New Hampshire’s isolated Isles of Shoals.
Still, the remaining rooms of this “chromothematically” arranged retrospective display some stirring intervals of observation and technical adventure. Conversation on the Avenue (1892), for instance, does not work at all as a representation in three dimensions; it is as dynamically flat, and perhaps as gynophobic, as a de Kooning Woman. Some of the urban views (Lower Fifth Avenue, 1890; Union Square in Spring, 1896) do more, as dramatic compositions, than merely record—a matter of interest, as he predicted—the vanished costumes and architecture of his Manhattan. Some of the night scenes (Winter, Midnight; Cab Stand at Night, Madison Square, 1891; see the illustration on page 10) are brilliantly theatrical and convey a sense of the urban underside, the struggle for survival, not unworthy of George Luks or George Bellows. The well-known The Room of Flowers (1894; see the illustration on page 10), depicting the poet Celia Thaxter’s parlor, is one of the few American paintings that could be called riotous, in the way that Bonnard is riotous, cramming in color with no fear of dissonance; each detail speaks a language of time and place and class.
The realist in Hassam was as strong as the Impressionist. Approaching him as an Impressionist, we are disappointed at the lack of an ongoing theoretical pursuit, such as the one that took Monet through all the shades of haystacks to the giant color-tangle of his water lilies, or Cézanne’s enterprise of reconstructing, one patient stroke at a time, the basis of visual form, or even Hassam’s friend John Twachtman’s patient seasonal exploration of his own property in Greenwich.
The most theoretical painters whose influence Hassam admitted were Turner, whose watercolors struck him on his first trip abroad in 1883, and Whistler, whose kimonos and nocturnes receive a homage of imitation in Twenty-sixth of June, Old Lyme (1912), Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago (1893), and The Evening Star (1891). This last, relatively early work, a pastel, is Hassam’s most nearly abstract work. The sea is a great simplifier. Cruising through the numerous—all too numerous: one tenth of his total output—paintings of the Isles of Shoals, one comes upon two near-pointillist, high-horizoned paintings of stark ocean, The West Wind, Isles of Shoals (1904) and the deliciously colored Sunset at Sea (1911). His watercolors in this stony marine environment can be freer and more intense than his oils; the blue-greens of The Cove (1912) and The Gorge, Appledore (1912) sink the eye in ink-pure depths.
Looking at the tumultuous brushwork, in oils, of the watery foregrounds of Surf, Isles of Shoals (1913) and Duck Island from Appledore (1911), or the stratified, tenaciously clinging strokes of Sylph’s Rock, Appledore (1907), one sees how much of a fauve this painter of smiling aspects was. His still life Winter Sickle Pears (1918) evokes a comparison with van Gogh’s Apples (1887), but in van Gogh parallel brushstrokes become a mannerism, a signature of his increasingly inward vision, whereas in Hassam they remain the byproduct of an energetic hurry, a trace of vigor never formalized into a motif.
His case is very American 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 to capture, and then, in the 1920s, to a stylized, muralistic Arcadia that was dim enough when Puvis de Chavannes was doing it. But the finer and even more successful talent of John Singer Sargent took a similar neoclassic turn, as if seeking, in the anarchic world of privatized gallery art merchandised to the well-to-do, the kind of communal accreditation and official patronage bestowed on artists in the Renaissance.
The exhibition’s last room holds seven of Hassam’s thirty flag paintings, a series depicting Fifth Avenue and adjacent streets as canyons hung with patriotic banners between 1916 and 1919. These paintings bring his highest prices now, though he was disappointed by his failure to sell the lot to the city of New York or an American museum. Collectively they show him excelling as an illustrator but not as a painter. The dun-colored buildings along the avenue are perfunctory and milky pale. The people are black daubs, most brutally reduced, along with the black boxes of motorized vehicles, in Flags on Fifty-seventh Street, The Winter of 1918 (1918); they put me in mind of the bug-people Saul Steinberg used to draw from the vantage of his Union Square studio.
A painted flag, as Jasper Johns was to make clear, is both an image and the thing itself; we are tempted to salute. Hassam’s flags are raw red, white, and blue, with little attempt to give them texture or folds. In Flags on the Waldorf (1916), they almost merge with the spattery indications of cornice and window, and in Victory Day, May 1919 (1919), the mist of the day envelops them. The best-painted and most unified, to my eye, was The Avenue in the Rain (1917), where Hassam’s old love of wet reflection stirs him to the broadest, most engaged painting in the series. Over three feet tall, the canvas hangs in the White House.
Posterity looks for hooks to hang old reputations on; the flags have become Hassam’s hook, and there is a fittingness in this, even in their relative vulgarity. “The movements of humanity in the street” are epitomized on high by the outflow of flags from the stony façades; without violating the realism that was Hassam’s strength, the flags, like emotions made visible, express the city’s humanity, in a joyous voice.