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 …