Childe Hassam was an artist who was a leader of the American Impressionist movement.
Fredrick Childe Hassam (1859-1935) was born to a New England family in Boston, Massachusetts. He became one of the main figures of Impressionism in America by the turn of the 20th century and, finally, one of America’s great artistic authorities prior to the rise of the avant-garde.
Like many American artists of his age, Hassam followed a professional career before any artistic ventures: he began as an accountant at the publishing house Little, Brown & Company. His artistic talents were not encouraged by his family and he chose not to go to Harvard.
Thanks to his early start in the publishing industry, Hassam developed the crafts of wood engraving and drawing, with watercolour painting on the side. This prepared him for working as a part-time illustrator for several magazines beginning in 1882. The following year he gave the first exhibition of his watercolours in Boston.
European Travel and its influences
With his colleague from the Boston Art Club, Edmund H. Garrett, Hassam visited England and Central Europe in 1883. The discovery of Turner’s landscapes inspired his second exhibition in 1884. From American artistic circles, he also absorbed the Barbizon school’s lesson about setting and thematic colour.
In the mid-1880s, Childe Hassam established a family life and began painting American cityscapes with a view to bringing onto the canvas the authentic experience of what he saw. Urban landscapes, most especially those of New York, would become his most recognised and appreciated theme. In 1886, he and his wife settled in Paris as part of his quest for true artistic recognition. From the American public, he had already received sufficient financial support for his watercolours, which will persist in the years to come.
Dissatisfied by the stuffiness of the teaching at the Académie Julian, where he had hoped to finally garner some formal education in the arts, Hassam continued to paint city scenes, send his works back to Boston, and engage with the Impressionists. In this period he observes a distance between himself and the more extreme experiments of the Impressionists, but he also recognises that it is the same attempt to capture the subjective experience of landscape.
Both during his Parisian stay and back in America, Hassam displayed a willingness to reform his palette according to his intuition about the scenery he was trying to portray. He introduced orange where an atmospheric hue called for it, and he resorted elsewhere to the full range of dark colours without regard for the Impressionist model.
In 1889, he settled on Fifth Avenue, in New York, having just won a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle. In the years to follow he continued to seek an Impressionistic voice, paying no attention to the novelties that were ensuing in France with the passing of that movement. He continued with his trips to France and with his cityscapes, mainly with an eye to the well-off middle class and the high-rise building.
During the 1890s, Childe Hassam was already a lodestar of the American artistic firmament. He established an artistic group inspired by Impressionism, called The Ten, in opposition to the Society of American Artists, perceived as conservative. He continued to sell his artworks successfully through the crisis years and emerged into the new century with the recognition of greatness that he had previously lacked. Impressionism had by now become popular in America.
His watercolours acquired a greater quantity of outdoor subjects (as well as posing human subjects) as he became aware of a certain spiritual need for the countryside, despite his devotion to New York and the great crowd. The Armory Show of 1913, held in New York, proved to him that Impressionism was not a vanguard on the American scene anymore and that novelties such as Cubism were beginning to draw the public’s attention. Childe Hassam viewed the entire avant-garde with distaste and alarm.
His Flags series, begun in 1916, came to be Childe Hassam’s most famous creation. Intended as a patriotic contribution to the war effort against Germany and in alliance with France, the two dozen variants of American and/or Allied flags aflutter on New York facades demonstrate his variously Impressionistic elaboration on a theme that mattered to him greatly. He hoped in vain that they would be sold as a set and the funds used to buy Liberty Bonds.
In the last phase of his life, he experienced the rise of the art market and the inflationary rise in the value of his paintings. He spent his final years in East Hampton, New York, and mostly gave up his habit of travelling to new painting locations.
The attention of the American art scene was captured by the European avant-garde in the 1920s, a phenomenon he regarded with revulsion. After a decline of interest for his work following his death in 1935, Childe Hassam’s idiosyncratic Impressionism was reevaluated from the 1960s onwards. The rekindling of interest was accompanied by a new rise in the market value of Hassam’s painting.
The art market had by now reached a whole new dimension with respect to the 1920s and, quite fittingly, it carried aloft a painter who had always been highly successful at drawing the purchasers’ attention.