Childe Hassam - Biography and Legacy
East Hampton, Long Island, New York
Biography of Childe Hassam
Childhood and Education
Frederick Childe Hassam's family had deep New England roots. His father was a cutlery salesman based in Boston whose ancestors arrived in America from England in the 17th century with a name that began as Horsham. This name went through a number of spelling changes before becoming Hassam, which would result in questions regarding the future artist's origin with some believing, much to Hassam's amusement, that he was Arabian.
Hassam's interest in art developed at a young age and one of his earliest memories was hiding in an antique coach his father collected, so he could paint undisturbed. His childhood talent was recognized by an aunt who encouraged him by arranging for him to meet with local artists.
The family suffered financially when, in 1872, his father's business was destroyed by a fire resulting in Hassam being forced to leave school and obtain a job to help support the family. Lasting only three weeks in the accounting department of a publishing company, his supervisor suggested upon Hassam's dismissal that since he spent all of his time creating drawings, he might consider a career in art. Taking this advice, Hassam obtained a job in a wood engraving shop, where he quickly rose to the position of draftsman.
By 1881 Hassam had opened his own studio, working as a draftsman and freelance illustrator for children's books and magazines; he continued his art education by taking classes at the Lowell Institute and the Boston Art Club. In 1882, he had his first solo exhibition of around fifty watercolors at a Boston gallery, which included works depicting what would become one of his popular themes, landscape paintings of places he visited, such as Nantucket. In fact, travel would inspire Hassam's art throughout his career, including the first of many trips to Europe he made in 1883, where he drank deeply at the well of the French Impressionists.
In the early 1880s Hassam met poet Celia Thaxter, whose father owned the Appledore House hotel on the Isles of Shoals, Maine, where she lived and during the mid-to-late-19th century welcomed many New England cultural luminaries in a salon-like atmosphere, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Whittier, Sarah Orne Jewett, and William Morris Hunt. Hassam later described the group as a "jolly, refined, interesting and artistic set of people...like one large family." Hassam taught Thaxter to paint, and the crescent shape that began to appear in front of his signature on works of this period were believed to be a reference to Thaxter, who, in her poetry, linked a crescent sun to the artist's emerging fame. As time passed, the crescent was reduced to a simple slash that was later useful when Hassam proved a work considered to be his was a forgery due to the missing mark by his signature. Hassam would produced numerous canvases and watercolors depicting Thaxter's extensive gardens and the islands' seashore.
Hassam had courted Kathleen Maude Doane, a family friend, for several years and finally married her on February 1st, 1884. The new couple moved into an apartment in the South End of Boston, and Hassam's work took on a new focus, the depiction of city scenes. With works such as Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston (1885), he also demonstrated a fascination with city life, perspective, and the atmospheric effects of weather and light.
In the autumn of 1886, Hassam and his wife left Boston for a three-year stay in Paris, where he studied at the prestigious Academie Julian and completed a series of urban and garden scenes. Upon his return, the Hassams settled in New York City where he helped to found the New York Water Color Club. An interesting character, Hassam was known for his dapper style, often wearing tweed suits and sometimes even a monocle.
Shortly after arriving in New York, Hassam met fellow artists John Twachtman and J. Alden Weir at the opening reception for an exhibition of the American Water Color Society. The friendship between the three was in part bonded over a shared affection for and desire to create Impressionist works. This focus was deepened by a friendship with Theodore Robinson, who had worked in Giverny, France with Claude Monet. During this time the group of artists would go together to study works by Monet and other Impressionist masters, such as Edgar Degas and Auguste Renoir, that were on view throughout the city.
Drawing inspiration from city life, Hassam spent the majority of his days traveling through New York City painting the sites, sometimes using a stopped carriage as a studio with an easel set on the seat across from him. During this time, in part inspired by the work of the French painters he had studied, Hassam's work focused on the effects of light on objects which he captured in loose brushstrokes with deliberate color choices. As a result, he would become one of the leaders of American Impressionism, a style that was met with both positive and negative reviews by critics and the public alike.
From the late 1890s onward, Hassam's style became even more impressionistic with quick brushstrokes that were so thin, one could sometimes almost see the canvas beneath. The increasing modernity of the city with the newly built skyscrapers, along with new summer locations he visited such as East Hampton, Long Island where Hassam would eventually buy a home, provided exciting subjects for the artist.
In a debate over the importance of Impressionism, in December 1897, Hassam and nine other painters left the Society of American Artists to form the Ten American Painters. When this new group began exhibiting their works it was Hassam who was often viewed as the most radical, with one critic writing, "Hassam is as impressionistic as the most extreme could wish."
The outbreak of World War I provided a source of inspiration late in Hassam's career and resulted in the creation of many patriotic-themed works as well as a brief arrest when he unknowingly broke the law by drawing the naval training taking place on the Hudson River. The war was the theme of one of Hassam's greatest series, paintings of American and other flags that lined the many streets of New York City during these years. Capturing the intense patriotism of the period, the works helped raise funds for the war effort while simultaneously raising the American spirit. Despite his best efforts, after the war's end Hassam was unable to keep the nearly thirty flag paintings together as a memorial. Angered by this he wrote in 1919, "I have heard it before!! Nobody ever heard of New York subscribing anything for the fine arts... They [the flag paintings] will probably be sold in the west somewhere - and the enthusiastic New Yorkers will have to pay railroad fare to go and see them! I don't care a damn what you do about it."
Despite his emergence as one of the leaders of a new American art movement, near the end of his life Hassam became increasingly vocal against developing styles of modernism as well as European artists. Battling failing health and increased bouts of drinking, he continued to paint until his death in 1935.
The Legacy of Childe Hassam
Childe Hassam proved quick to pick up on the latest developments in European art in the 1880s and worked assiduously to adapt it to the depictions of modernizing, industrializing America. Yet he also remained a devotee of Impressionism even long after it had been superseded as cutting-edge by other movements in modern art. Hassam's work helped to pave the way for other artists such as Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, and Andrew Wyeth, who, while they differed from him stylistically, remained committed to developing a home-grown, distinctively American subject matter.