Childe Hassam (1) was the undisputed leader and most successful practitioner of the American Impressionist movement. He believed, however, that true impressionism was realism, and that a direct observation of the world would inspire an artist to articulate the connection between what he saw and what he painted. Nevertheless, he championed the rapid brushwork, the high-keyed tonal palette, and the brilliant effects of color and light of the French Impressionists, and he adopted the French interest in modern subjects. In particular, he chronicled the dynamic cityscapes found in Boston and New York—a pursuit that, at the time, was virtually unique among American painters. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, he also painted several picturesque villages along the New England coast, often evoking in these works a nostalgic view of a simpler, earlier time.
The son of a wealthy merchant, Frederick Childe Hassam was born on October 17, 1859, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, near Boston, where he studied drawing and watercolor in high school and apprenticed as a woodblock designer for a local wood engraver beginning in 1876. (2) He studied drawing and anatomy at the Lowell Institute, a division of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and took drawing classes at the Boston Art Club. By the early 1880s, Hassam established a Boston studio, and was supporting himself as a freelance illustrator of children’s books and magazine articles. (3) He had his first solo exhibition in Boston in 1882, where he exhibited fifty watercolors, many painted in Nantucket the previous summer. After this exhibition, and at the suggestion of his friend, the poet and journalist Celia Laighton Thaxter (1835-1894), Hassam began to sign his art “F. Childe Hassam” until, in 1883, he dropped the initial and used “Childe Hassam.” Beginning in 1885, he placed an enigmatic crescent before his signature. (4) In the summer of 1883, he and artist Edmund Henry Garrett (1853-1929) traveled through Great Britain and Europe to study old masters and to make watercolors in the countryside. Hassam was impressed by the atmospheric art of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), and, when he returned to the United States, he attempted to capture similar effects of light and atmosphere in his depictions of various Boston streetscapes.
Hassam married in 1884; he and his wife returned to Paris in 1886, where they lived until 1889 and where he studied at the Académie Julian under Gustav Boulanger (1824-1888), Henri Lucien Doucet (1856-1895), and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911). He exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1887 and 1888, and won a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1889. Dissatisfied with academic training and in direct response to his first-hand examination of French Impressionist canvases, his brushwork became more textural and his palette evolved from nearly monochromatic browns to more vivid, high-keyed colors.
The Hassams returned to the United Sates and settled in New York in 1889. Hassam found in the dynamic city inspiration for pictorial experiments. In New York, Hassam was actively involved in the city’s art community, and he became close friends with the artists John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) and J. Alden Weir (1852-1919). He consistently participated in the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition in New York beginning in 1883. Between 1889 and 1919, he also made extended and productive summer visits to New England coastal towns—in particular, Gloucester, Massachusetts; Newport and Provincetown, Rhode Island; and Cos Cob and Old Lyme, Connecticut—until he chose East Hampton, New York, as his exclusive summer home in 1920. Among the New England locales that he visited was the island of Appledore, Maine, part of the Isles of Shoals, a group of small, rocky islands about ten miles off the New Hampshire coast, near Portsmouth. Hassam, like many fellow artists, writers, and musicians, was first drawn there by his friendship with Celia Laighton Thaxter, whose family owned a hotel on the island.
In 1897, after returning from a trip to Europe that included a stay in Paris, Hassam resigned his membership in the Society of American Artists to join with nine other artists in the formation of Ten American Painters (or “The Ten”), a group of American Impressionists initiated by the painter John Twachtman. The other members were Frank W. Benson, Joseph R. DeCamp, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Willard L. Metcalf, Robert Reid, Edward E. Simmons, Edmund C. Tarbell, and J. Alden Weir. (When Twachtman died in 1902, he was replaced by William Merritt Chase in 1905.) At their first group show, 1st Exhibition, Ten American Painters, at the Durand-Ruel Gallery, New York, in 1898, Hassam’s work was dismissed by critics as “too experimental” and “radical.” (5) This criticism notwithstanding, Hassam found buyers, including museums, (6) for his work, and with the growing acceptance of Impressionism at the turn of the century, his art began to gain legitimacy with Americans. Paintings by Hassam took gold medals at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition (1901), the Saint Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904), and at the Society of American Artists (1906), which Hassam had left nearly a decade before to become a member of The Ten. In 1909, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired by gift its first work by Hassam, Coast Scene, Isles of Shoals. (7) Hassam’s popularity and success continued to grow, and by 1920 the sale of his paintings had brought him $100,000, (8) or what today would be nearly a million dollars. Childe Hassam died at the age of seventy-five at his East Hampton home on August 27, 1935.
After returning from France in 1889, Childe Hassam soon began taking extended summer painting trips to various picturesque New England sea-side towns, especially Newport, Rhode Island, Cos Cob and Old Lyme, Connecticut, and Gloucester, Massachusetts. He frequently chose his summer destinations to coincide with visits by artist friends, and in Gloucester he painted with William Metcalf, John H. Twachtman, and J. Alden Weir, among others. The paintings he achieved in these summer locales in the 1890s show his increasing attention to pure landscapes and cityscapes as well as his continued experimentation with Impressionism-inspired rapid brushwork and a high-keyed, saturated tonal palette. On these very issues, Hassam once remarked: “I am often asked what determines my selection of subjects, what makes me lean toward impressionism. I do not know. I can only paint as I do and be myself…and work out my ideas, my vagaries, if you please, in color.” (9)
In Gloucester Inner Harbor Hassam depicts the town in a sweeping panorama as seen from across the inner harbor and under Monet-like luminous clouds. The prominent vertical church steeple rising from the cluster of houses is echoed by the sailboat masts in the middle ground and by the pilings in the foreground of the painting. Although Gloucester was the largest commercial fishing port in the United States at the time, Hassam has included no humans and nothing of the fish-drying and fish-packing plants of the port in this depiction, and, indeed, the town’s industrial elements and its large summer tourist population are completely absent as well, thereby allowing Hassam to capture an unspoiled New England village charm. (10) The discrepancy between reality and Hassam’s depictions of Gloucester did not go unnoticed, and the critic Ernest Haskell observed: “Before I had seen Hassam’s pictures, [Gloucester] seemed a fishy little city, now as I pass through it I feel Hassam. The schooners beating in and out, the wharves, the sea, the sky, these belong to Hassam.” (11)
Although Hassam spent many summers in Gloucester, drawn there in large part by the quality of the light on the harbor which he depicted many times and from numerous vantage points, the undated Dumbarton Oaks version is closest to a larger version in the Newark Museum, dated 1899. (12) Nearly identical in composition, the two paintings differ in Hassam’s use of the water in the Newark painting to reflect the sun-illuminated clouds in the sky, which is otherwise more closely cropped to the cityscape and horizon line. This change increases the amount of surface detail and substantially counters the impression of expansive open water seen in the Dumbarton Oaks version, where the effect of light on the water is only truly studied around the pilings in the foreground.
Older photographs of the Dumbarton Oaks painting show a date to the right of Hassam’s signature that possibly reads 96. This date was removed as a later addition when the painting was cleaned.
(1) For Hassam’s biography, see Ulrich W. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam, American Impressionist (New York, 1994).
(2) Ibid., 13.
(3) Ibid., 14.
(4) According to Hiesinger, the crescent “may have alluded to the oriental flavor” of Hassam’s name or referred to the crescent sun, “a poetic image used by [Celia] Thaxter to symbolize Hassam’s emerging fame.” Ibid., 17.
(5) Ibid., 116.
(6) He sold paintings to the Cincinnati Art Museum, in 1899, and to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, in 1900.
(7) Coast Scene, Isles of Shoals, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of George A. Hearn, 1909, 09.72.6 (1901, oil on canvas, 63.2 x 76.5 cm).
(8) “Art Fund Created by Hassam's Will,” New York Times (November 13, 1935).
(9) Frederick W. Morton, “Childe Hassam, Impressionist,” Brush and Pencil vol. 8 (June 1901), 143ff as quoted in Ulrich W. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam, American Impressionist (Munich/New York, 1994), 10.
(10) However, Hassam’s paintings of Gloucester that depict both the inner and outer harbors include more of the commercial and industrial aspects of the town. See Gloucester Harbor, 1899 (inscribed 1909), oil on canvas, 63.5 cm x 66 cm (25 in. x 26 in.), Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL, and a closely related painting in a private collection, Gloucester Harbor, 1899, oil on canvas, 62.2 cm x 57.2 cm (24 ½ in. x 22 ½ in.), H. Barbara Weinberg, et al, Childe Hassam, American Impressionist, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (New Haven/London, 2004), figs. 179 and 180.
(11) Susan G. Larkin, “Hassam in New England, 1889-1918,” in Weinberg, 169, quoted from Ernest Haskell, introduction to Nathaniel Pousette-Dart, comp., Childe Hassam (New York, 1922), viii.
(12) Gloucester, 1899, oil on canvas, 81.3 cm x 81.3 cm (32 in. x 32 in.). The Newark Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. Russell Parsons (73.76).
Hiesinger, Ulrich W. Childe Hassam, American Impressionist. Munich/New York: Prestel, 1994, 122, fig. 131.
Weinberg, H. Barbara, et al. Childe Hassam, American Impressionist. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2004, 386.
Sacred Art, Secular Context, Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. Asen Kirin, editor. Athens, Georgia: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2005, 158-159, no. 73.
Frank, Susan Behrends, American Impressionists, Painters of Light and the Modern Landscape. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2007, no. 56.
Dumbarton Oaks, The Collections. Gudrun Bühl, editor. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (distributed by Harvard University Press), 2008, 366f, ill.
Carder, James. American Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 94-97, no. 14.
Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, Carnegie International, 14th Annual Exhibition, May 2-June 30, 1910, as “no. 116, Gloucester Inner Harbor.”
SITES (Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Washington, D.C.), American Impressionism [Impressionnistes Américains]," Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, March 30-May 30, 1982; Nationalgalerie, East Berlin, June 15-July 25, 1982; Museum Moderner Kunst/Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, Vienna, August 12-September 25, 1982; Art Museum of the Socialist Republic of Romania, Bucharest, October 24-December 4, 1982; National Art Gallery, Sofia, Bulgaria, December 15, 1982-January 31, 1983, cat. no. 28.
SITES (Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Washington, D.C.), New Horizons: American Painting 1840-1910, State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow, November 16, 1987-January 6, 1988; State Russian Museum, Leningrad, January 22-March 13, 1988; Minsk State Museum of Belorussiya Russia, Minsk, March 30-May 13, 1988.
The Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA, Sacred Art, Secular Context, May 15-November 6, 2005, 158-159, no. 73.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., American Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Selections from the House Collection, October 26, 2010-February 13, 2011, no. 14.