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Eric GibsonThis book is still a fine exploration of one of America's gifted painters.
— Wall Street Journal
No other American Impressionist ever surpassed the quality and variety of Hassam's output as a painter and draftsman. Equally talented in oils, watercolors, and prints, he explored rain-swept city scenes, glorious gardens, exquisite women, and stirring flag-lined streets. Many of these irresistible pictures are hidden in private collections and are rarely, if ever, accessible to the public; others are on view at major museums across the country, from the Metropolitan Museum to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to ...
No other American Impressionist ever surpassed the quality and variety of Hassam's output as a painter and draftsman. Equally talented in oils, watercolors, and prints, he explored rain-swept city scenes, glorious gardens, exquisite women, and stirring flag-lined streets. Many of these irresistible pictures are hidden in private collections and are rarely, if ever, accessible to the public; others are on view at major museums across the country, from the Metropolitan Museum to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
By approaching Childe Hassam (1859-1935) from different angles, the three authors reveal this multitalented artist's many facets and uncover previously unknown aspects of his life and work. The authoritative essays are illustrated with a brilliant array of color illustrations that represent all of Hassam's styles, from Barbizon-inspired Tonalism to Impressionism to Post-Impressionism. The book concludes with an invaluable illustrated chronology and an annotated bibliography.
For God and Country
Hassam's art was grounded in tradition. This may seem a curious label for the achievement of a painter so fully associated with the aesthetics of Impressionism--an aesthetic that, for much of Hassam's lifetime, was considered the leading edge of artistic expression in America, however passe it had become in Europe. Even more, the foreign origins of that aesthetic might seem antithetical to its integration with the strongly traditional strain embodied in the concept of national identity. Still, one must recognize that Impressionist modernism and an American nationalism were hardly mutually exclusive; indeed, those two elements dominate the observations and conclusions on modern art in Hamlin Garland's Crumbling Idols (1894), which is often cited as the first significant American discourse on Impressionism. Garland laid out his cultural strategies for the alliance of modernism and Americanism most strongly in an exhibition catalog essay written the following year (though this time with a Midwestern "heartland" bias, rather than a New England one).
During the course of his long career, Hassam's art was read by critics as representing particularly American values, drawn especially from his New England heritage. It may seem odd that the painter of such lush, colorful canvases was frequently labeled a "Puritan," especially at a time when Puritanism had come under intense assault for its doctrines and its traditions of inhibition. Yet Hassam's art truly is replete with references to and representations of characteristics both national and spiritual. The artist's wildflower gardens, for example, have rightlybeen viewed as distinctly American (with particular New England connotation), celebrating the same casual freedom that numerous authors have found preferable to the more rigidly formalized European garden tradition.
Although Hassam was not associated with any specific denomination, he seems to have depicted more ecclesiastical structures than any other major American painter. These often appeared in his panoramic cityscapes in Boston and New York, as well as in some painted abroad, showing Notre-Dame in Paris and Saint Peter's in Broadstairs, England. It could be argued, of course, that these structures were included because they were there, or because their tall spires and towers added a pleasing variation to the horizon line. But their significance in conveying a spiritual resonance becomes evident when we recognize how many images Hassam painted in which a house of god is the primary focus within the urban complex.
Hassam's series of church images began the first year he lived in New York, with the depiction of the First Presbyterian Church in Lower Fifth Avenue (plate 210)--a logical enough choice, since it was between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets, only a few blocks down Fifth Avenue from Hassam's studio. The great Gothic tower of this 1845 structure rises almost spectrally, providing spiritual guardianship over the evening landscape of heavy street traffic and an orderly procession of well-groomed pedestrians. A few years later Hassam painted Calvary Church in the Snow (plate 211), focusing almost completely on the great double-towered Episcopal church, built by James Renwick in 1847, that still fronts Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South) at Twenty-first Street. This was probably painted early in 1893, during the brief time that Hassam was living at the Chelsea Hotel on Twenty-third Street and thus not far from this building; the church was even closer to the National Academy of Design at Twenty-third Street and Fourth Avenue, where he frequently exhibited his paintings. Hassam infused the gray stonework with shades of purple, contrasting this with the blanket of snow that covers its roofs as well as the scarcely occupied sidewalks and streets. The emptiness of the scene is logical, given the inclement weather, but it may also reflect Hassam's cognizance that the church was only sparsely attended, never having attracted the wealthy residents for which lower Fourth Avenue had originally been developed.
There was a general lull in Hassam's urban imagery at the turn of the century, paralleled by a hiatus in his renderings of individual New York churches, but he returned to the theme in 1907 with Church of the Paulist Fathers (private collection). In this case, the Roman Catholic church on Ninth Avenue between Fifty-ninth and Sixtieth Streets takes up the distant rear plane of the scene. In the middle distance is the Empire Hotel; the crenellated building in the foreground, topped with a furled American flag, is the First Battery National Guard Armory (1901), situated right across from Hassam's studio at 27 West Sixty-seventh Street. Thus, Hassam contrasts a variety of revivalist styles--Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance, with a spectrum of city services--religious, touristic, and military.
Three years later, Hassam painted another Episcopal church, Saint Mark's in the Bowery (plate 212), situated at the northwest corner of Second Avenue and Tenth Street. This was the most historic urban church in Hassam's repertory. Standing on the former estate of Peter Stuyvesant (the Dutch administrator of what was originally New Amsterdam), the Federal-style building dates from 1799, with a Greek Revival steeple built in 1828 by the renowned architect Ithiel Town. Even though the church was deep in the heart of the low-lying buildings of the East Village, Hassam depicts Saint Mark's almost like a community church, silhouetted against the cloud-strewn sky and fronted by broad avenues with pedestrians and a horse-drawn carriage. In contrast to his previous depictions of urban churches, here New York has all but disappeared, at a time when it was, in actuality, rapidly acquiring the vertical character of a skyscraper city.
In fact, Hassam may have meant to stress here the primacy of the spiritual and the traditional over the material celebrity of the new commercial skyscrapers that, as Henry James had recently written, were "undermining, both physically and philosophically, the very foundations of culture and tradition." Later Miriam Beard would note that, among the tall buildings, the "church spires of Manhattan look more and more like masts of submerged ships." Indeed, the great tall buildings of New York were not only in the process of replacing the church as the city's vertical landmarks, but they also began to acquire their own vocabulary of consecration when the 1913 Woolworth Building was dubbed "the Cathedral of Commerce," as "the chosen habitation of that spirit in man which, through means of change and barter, binds alien people into unity and peace." Hassam did paint the modern canyons of New York (see plate 172, for example), but he commented that the individual "skyscraper is not so much a marvel of art as a wildly formed architectural freak. . . . Any skyscraper taken alone and examined in all its hideous detail is a very ugly structure indeed."
If church imagery was important to Hassam in his urban renderings, the subject took on even greater resonance when he painted in the small New England towns that directly related to his own heritage. This sense of personal connection was never more eloquently expressed than in the paintings he created in Old Lyme, beginning with his first stay there in the summer and fall of 1903. Hassam greatly influenced that Connecticut art colony, redirecting the aesthetic emphasis from closely modulated Tonalism (first introduced when the community was "discovered" in 1899 by the painter Henry Ward Ranger) to the free chromatic range of sun-filled Impressionism. The great majority of the pictures painted there by Hassam and his colleagues were landscapes. Frank DuMond, one of Hassam's colleagues who was teaching there during the summer of 1903, described Old Lyme's attractions, from
"the low land of estuaries and salt-meadows to the rugged romantic beauty of rolling glacial hills, here and there ground down to their naked granite structure. Jagged ledges, seams, bowlders [sic], and shattered bits of rock break into the gentle rhythm of the uplands; patches of forest and groups of great oaks cling to their sides, and the gray stone fences still squirm about the barren meadows of a hundred years ago. The village is one of the oldest in New England, and is one of the few remaining places which still possesses the characteristics expressive of the quiet dignity of other days."
For Hassam that age and dignity constituted the special attraction of Old Lyme. The Congregational Church (built in 1817 by Samuel Belcher) and the boardinghouse/home of Florence Griswold were the two buildings central to the development of the town as an art colony. Hassam and his wife, along with countless other painters, stayed at Griswold House, where Griswold sheltered artists as well as "tramps and bums of all descriptions," according to Hassam.
Hassam's respect for both tradition and religion infuses one of his most famous series, the group of paintings of the Congregational Church begun during his first season there. In Church at Old Lyme (plate 216), the majestic white structure rises up starkly and triumphantly, while the golden red leaves of autumnal elms bow gracefully before it. When the work was exhibited in the annual show of the Ten American Painters in 1904, critics admired the picture and took note of Hassam's sensitivity to locale. One wrote, "The large 'Church of Old Lyme' is entirely satisfactory; it well expresses the spirit of the place, and the surroundings of the stately white buildings are celebrated with the same sympathetic and skillful touch."
By 1906 Hassam had painted the church three more times; the most often exhibited version, Church at Old Lyme (plate 51), was completed, according to the inscription affixed to it, on October 17, 1905. This version garnered even more praise than the first. Frank Fowler wrote extensively about it, concluding, "It is in essence a phase of consecrated New England"--a summation that the artist would surely have approved. Hassam also painted a moonlight version in 1905 (private collection) and, a year later, Church at Old Lyme (plate 217). Hassam might have gone on to paint even more versions, but the church was destroyed by fire early in the morning of July 3, 1907; though rebuilt in 1910, it may never again have embodied for Hassam its traditional glory. On learning of the disaster, he wrote to Griswold that he "always had a real and pagan delight in the many and beautiful aspects of that old church. They cannot rebuild it--never!"
Hassam had tremendous admiration for the architecture of New England churches as well as for their spiritual significance, for their classical proportions underscored their sense of permanence. As quoted by the daughter and biographer of his friend and Impressionist colleague J. Alden Weir, Hassam said, "New England churches have the same kind of beauty as Greek temples. . . . My business is to sit in front of a beautiful church or a beautiful woman and paint them." He painted such structures both before and after he began visiting Old Lyme. Among his finest later renderings is The Church of Gloucester (plate 218), one of several pictures of Gloucester churches he painted that year. The church is surrounded by elms that appear to march toward the building, but otherwise it stands alone, a noble affirmation of Hassam's pride in his American heritage at a time--the war-plagued year of 1918--of international struggle.
This Gloucester landmark was the first Universalist church in the United States, dedicated in 1806. It had played an important role in legalizing the right to a free church in America, though Hassam may not have been aware of its history. The Universalist doctrines are close to those of the Unitarian church, which Hassam had attended in his youth. He later reminisced about those days in Dorchester:
"Some of the white churches were actual (for they are accounted today) masterpieces. And the white church on Meeting Hill as I look back on it was no exception. Painting as I often have the white New England church tower in its setting preferably of American elms, sometimes with the color of our glorious American autumn, as the well known picture The Church at Old Lyme, owned by the Buffalo Museum. I can look back and very truly say that probably and all unconsciously I as a very young boy looked at this New England church, and without knowing it, appreciated firstly its great beauty as it stood there against one of our radiant North American clear blue skies as it still stands there now. It was a Unitarian Church and I was sent there to Sunday School and Church."
In early times the New England churches had also been meetinghouses for their communities, and Hassam documented one of these in one of his earliest Impressionist canvases, County Fair, New England (plate 34). This is an unusual work within the group of rural images we have been examining, not only because the structure basically serves as the backdrop for crowded human activity, but also because the building is not cited in the title and remains unidentified to this day. Yet the picture conveys Hassam's quintessential concerns, celebrating New England not only as his own birthplace, but also as the nation's spiritual home. This county fair brings together the local populace--well-dressed men, women, and children in a setting both egalitarian and festive. Patriotism is also evident in the American flags rising above the crowd at left, from the meetinghouse tower, and over the doorway. Adeline Adams especially admired this work for its fidelity to the spirit of New England.
Church steeples may have been dwarfed in Hassam's more panoramic views of New York, but they tower over such communities as Gloucester. Along with the spire of City Hall, the steeples of the First Baptist Church in the center and the tower of the Catholic church at the right all break the horizon in Gloucester Harbor (plate 219). Strangely, however, they are much reduced in the decade-later revision of this picture, Gloucester Harbor (plate 118). Both views are from Banner Hill in East Gloucester, overlooking Smith's Cove, with Rocky Point in the middle distance and the town of Gloucester beyond. Even though the town, in addition to attracting a myriad of artists at the turn of the century, relied primarily on the fishing industry, Hassam ignored the working fleet in favor of small pleasure boats. Both these pictures constitute tributes to New England tradition in modern aesthetic terms; they also offer paeans to the growing tourist industry. One Gloucester columnist in 1909 noted: "Reports from every direction show that the revival of summer resort business in this part of New England is as real as the revival of manufacturing."
Pleasure vessels are present also in Hassam's Provincetown (plate 221), dominated by the white Universalist Church tower. They recur with the even more imposing white steeple of Trinity Church in Cat Boats, Newport (plate 220) as well as in Newport, October Sundown (plate 42)--both painted in 1901. Even though these Newport pictures retain the spontaneity associated with plein-air painting, there is a group of Gloucester and Newport drawings, including one of Trinity Church itself, in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, which suggests that Hassam made careful studies before embarking on his paintings. The sailless masts of the boats in the foregrounds of these works echo the tall vertical of the church steeple, while the other buildings spread out horizontally beneath foliage and sky; only the church reaches, literally and metaphorically, to the heavens.
Intrinsic to Hassam's perception of New England's traditional values, surely based on his own experience, was his respect for the work ethic--a facet of his career that has been little explored. This aspect of his art deviates from the work of his fellow members of the Ten, who almost never concerned themselves with manual labor. Such imagery in Hassam's art seems more allied to the very different concerns of the Ashcan school, or "the Eight"--those artists grouped around Robert Henri who often explored working-class life in New York during the early decades of the twentieth century. Even these painters, however, seldom depicted their subjects actually engaged in manual labor--the major exception being George Luks's Lower East Side scenes of the Jewish quarter and the dockworkers of Everett Shinn and George Bellows. (John Sloan's "good-time girls" may or may not have been meant to be identified as prostitutes, but the artist did not often depict them plying their trade!)
In his images of workers at work, Hassam was thus bolder and more radical than these artists more usually identified with gritty urban realism. His many cab drivers and flower girls constitute a body of work imagery to which he later added a number of small pictures of urban laborers in New York. These brick builders and hod carriers can be seen as counterparts to the creation of the "New New York" featured both in Hassam's outdoor city scenes and in those viewed through the curtained openings of his Window series. Larger and more complex are his pictures of workers in New England towns; as Adeline Adams astutely recognized: "All this passion for whatever is lovely and fleeting does not prevent him from painting with zest men shingling the Baptist Church at Gloucester, or building a schooner at Provincetown." These paintings, such as Building the Schooner, Provincetown (plate 222), were often devoted to the labor of shipbuilding, the vocation he had often omitted from his panoramic vistas. By depicting his figures' conscientious toil in fashioning the spars and skeletons of these massive vessels, Hassam underscored both his respect for manual labor and his recognition of the traditional industries that had made these communities economically viable. Fishing remained the mainstay of these proud towns, but the arduous handcraft shown here was being superseded by impersonal mechanization.
During the second decade of this century, at the same time that Hassam was painting his Window series high up in his New York studio, he was also painting comparable interior scenes in small New England towns he was visiting during the summers. They differ from the city pictures, of course, since they offer no views of tall buildings; instead he concentrated on the juxtaposition of his female subjects with their immediate surroundings. In the Old House (plate 223), for example, shows a lovely contemplative woman standing next to and casting a shadow upon a Federal-style wooden mantelpiece, flanked by a Queen Anne chair at the right and a Windsor chair at the left--all elements of the New England tradition of simplicity and restraint. In its studied order, the picture is an aesthetic construction closely allied to the work of Whistler, especially The Little White Girl: Symphony in White, No. 2 (plate 66). Hassam especially admired Whistler, considering him "one of the big men" in art.
In the Old House was painted in the summer of 1914 while Hassam was staying in Cos Cob, Connecticut. He had first visited the town in 1896 with his colleague John Henry Twachtman. He returned in 1902, the year of Twachtman's death, but then not again until 1912, revisiting each year until 1916. The Holley House--where Twachtman's summer students had stayed and where the community's most renowned artist, Elmer MacRae, later lived--is the setting for numerous other New England interiors of this period. The model here is Helen Burke, daughter of the local barkeeper, Toby Burke, who purveyed wine and spirits to the Holley House; MacRae arranged for Burke to model for Hassam. The carved mantelpiece in this picture is in the dining room of the Holley House and conforms to Adeline Adams's description of the Holly House's "authentic dignity and charm." Caroline Mase, an artist and former Twachtman student, wrote in Hassam's obituary, "In the good old days of the Holley House, at Cos Cob just before the great war--where he painted some of his most beautiful canvases--he was always a genial, central figure." Carefully maintained, it is an old house, as the title affirms. As Susan Larkin has written, "The image of a demure lady at the hearth of an old house offered comforting reassurance of the continuity of traditional values." There is little of Impressionism in these clear and precise forms, though the simple geometry of the mantel and the room is alleviated by floral elements: two still lifes of flowers in vases atop the mantel, and above it, three simply framed floral paintings by MacRae.
The complete interiority of In the Old House is unusual among Hassam's New England paintings of women in rooms. Most of the others reveal a view out a window, like their New York counterparts, though in place of New York's tall buildings these views usually depict ground-level greenery and garden flowers. Twenty-sixth of June, Old Lyme (plate 68) depicts Hassam's wife, Maude, on her birthday, in her room at the Griswold House (the center of the Old Lyme art colony). She is accompanied by the artist's favorite flower, the mountain laurel, and its floral pattern echoes the embroidery on her blue robe. Most of the other works in this series, however, are Cos Cob pictures painted at the Holley House, such as Bowl of Goldfish (plate 224) and its counterpart in reverse, The Goldfish Window (plate 111), obviously a studio variation of the earlier picture (Helen Burke modeled for both). The building seen beyond the window is the barn, which served also as a studio for artists. Another in the series is Morning Light (plate 67), which depicts Maude in the north bedroom of the Holley House.
These compositions may seem similar to the Window pictures, but there are subtle differences. Although the two renderings of the goldfish bowl may suggest feminine confinement, the windows of Hassam's New England interiors are not veiled and the rooms communicate directly to the outside world. The women in these rooms usually look toward the out-of-doors, and those in the two goldfish pictures wear floral-patterned kimonos that echo the garden flowers beyond, although those depicting Maude show her self-absorbed in a mirror. In Morning Light she sits in a Windsor chair (an emblem of tradition that was the Holley House's finest heirloom), gazing into a hand mirror. Both she and her image are, in turn, reflected in the large wall mirror in front of which she sits, which, in its turn, reflects the image on a bureau mirror that is behind the figure and presumably just to the right of the artist/viewer. Her window reveals, appropriately, a more private view--a window box rather than a garden. This is a very personal and somewhat erotic image, presenting Maude Hassam's plaint body as available only to her husband (though also shared, of course, with all viewers of the picture).
New England may have offered Hassam the most fertile setting for the expression of his dedication to America and its traditions, but that dedication was most eloquently expressed in his celebrated Flag series, begun in May 1916. It was the display on Preparedness Day, May 13, 1916, that inspired the first work in the series, Just Off the Avenue, Fifty-third Street, May, 1916 (plate 225). Here only one flag is fully visible (one or two others appear partially hidden by the foliage of the slender trees), but a number of subsequent pictures that year featured Fifth Avenue bedecked with myriad American flags.
With the entry of the United States into World War I on April 6, 1917, parades were held to honor the visits of the Allied war commissioners to the city, and Fifth Avenue was decorated in their honor. Hassam began to show the decorated streets in which American flags were accompanied by those of the allies. Up the Avenue from Thirty-fourth Street, May, 1917 (plate 226), for example, records the flags of France, Great Britain, and Italy unfurled along with numerous American banners. This view is anchored at the lower right by the great department store B. Altman and Company at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street. At the left, at Thirty-seventh Street, is the brick Presbyterian Church--commerce and religion framing the patriotic display. As in most of the pictures in this series, there are throngs not only of pedestrians but also of automobiles, which serve as symbols of New York's modernity. The Flag series would eventually comprise about thirty pictures, though no single exhibition ever included that many all at once. In addition to the more monumental canvases, there exist a number of smaller oils as well as a significant group of watercolors (neither were exhibited in the various shows of the Flag series held during Hassam's lifetime).
Although the earliest painting in the series is set at street level, the viewpoint of some others is from on high, as in many of Hassam's earliest New York views. Most of those with an aerial perspective are set on Fifth Avenue, where the numerous war parades took place. The tall structures along the avenue function as powerful symbols of American solidity and strength, while the myriad figures and vehicles below are usually little more than ideographs personifying "the masses" supporting the national and Allied cause. The strategies of Impressionism--the vivid paint application, the chromatic brilliance of the national flags, and the bright sunlight--are all put to use fulfilling the mission of patriotic commemoration. In a small work, such as The Big Parade (plate 74), the British, American, and French flags overwhelm the scene (the specific setting is indeterminable), enormous in their contrast to the tiny crowds below. This seems to be the only one of Hassam's Flag paintings that actually depicts a parade.
Especially rich in color and bright sunlight is Allies Day, May, 1917 (plate 227), which became the best known of all Hassam's Flag pictures. It was reproduced as the frontispiece of Alfred Noyes's book The Avenue of the Allies and Victory, published in 1918 by the Art War Relief, which also reaped considerable funds by selling a color reproduction of the painting. The visual emphasis here is again on Hassam's favorite triumvirate of American, British, and French flags, all sporting the same red, white, and blue color scheme. The scene also represents the specific American-Anglo-French alliance, celebrated during May 1917 and highlighted by the visits to New York that month of Arthur James Balfour and Marshal Joseph-Jacques-Cesaire Joffre. It was in this month that Hassam began to create his series in earnest.
The patriotic objective of his Flag pictures was unmistakable, for he stated at the time: "I want the picture [plate 227] dedicated to the British and French nations commemorating the coming together of the three peoples in the fight for Democracy." Hassam's viewpoint here, again from on high, was probably taken from a building on the east side of the avenue, around Fifty-second Street. Across the avenue, in the sunlight, are seen the northern edge of the furrier Hoffstatter and Frères' double buildings (later Revillon Frères); Saint Thomas Episcopal Church; the University Club; the Gotham Hotel; and the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. The church buildings establish a visual alliance of patriotism and religion, suggesting heavenly blessing upon the Allied war effort. Saint Thomas Church is also the most prominent building in the earliest Flag picture, Just Off the Avenue, Fifty-third Street, May, 1916 (plate 225). Hassam painted Early Morning on the Avenue in May 1917 (1917; Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts) directly across Fifty-third Street from Saint Thomas. The church appears again the following year in Avenue of the Allies, 1918 (plate 130), balanced by Saint Patrick's Cathedral at the right, now with a wealth of different Allied flags celebrating the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive, which inspired Hassam to paint a subgroup of five pictures within the Flag series. During the fourth and last such drive to sell war bonds, beginning September 28, almost every block in mid-Manhattan was devoted to one of the allied nations; the block between Fiftieth and Fifty-first Streets displayed the flags of each of the twenty-two allies. The pageantry of the event inspired widespread admiration and reportage; one article was entitled: "Glory of Fifth Avenue Submerged by Flags of Freedom."
Hassam varied his emphasis on the national flags in Red Cross Drive (plate 72), where the national flags unfurled from the buildings along Fifth Avenue are combined with white banners with centered red Greek crosses. A series of these flags are repeated in diminishing size, disappearing down the center of the avenue from Eightieth Street down to Washington Square on May 18, 1918. Hassam achieved incredible yet impossible majesty by seeming to position the viewer both below the great display of flags and far above the surging crowds.
Fifth Avenue was the focal point for these patriotic displays, but flags appeared on side streets as well. Hassam painted a number of these more intimate views, such as Flags on Fifty-seventh Street, Winter, 1918 (plate 110), which is Hassam's only winter scene among the Flag series. This locale is more commercial and slightly grittier than the others, with the Sixth Avenue elevated station prominently cutting off the view. This neighborhood was especially familiar to Hassam, who recorded this scene from his studio at 130 West Fifty-seventh Street; the building at the northwest corner housed the Milch Galleries, where the Flag series would be shown the following year.
Another flag picture painted "off the Avenue" is The New York Bouquet: West Forty-second Street, 1917 (plate 229). In this autumnal scene, painted in November, the low-lying Sixth Avenue elevated train station, fronted by a trolley, cabs, and myriad pedestrians, is sandwiched between the towering Bush Terminal building at the left (then under construction) and at the extreme right, the entrance to the new Aeolian Hall, built in 1912 as the city's major rival to Carnegie Hall. This would be a neighborhood frequented by much of Hassam's audience, who might also have enjoyed the urban landscape of Bryant Park, a few trees from which intrude into the scene at far left. Again American, British, and in the forefront, French flags contribute to the artist's favorite display.
The following year Hassam went even farther afield in the city for his watercolor Flags, Columbus Circle (plate 230). The circle had been so named in 1892, when the city had attempted to make the site as elegant as Grand Army Plaza, at the other end of Central Park South. The circle was named in honor of Christopher Columbus, and the 1892 statue of him by the Italian sculptor Gaetanao Russo is the circle's most prominent feature. Though this neighborhood never met those early expectations of elegance, in part because of is role as an urban transportation hub, it became one of New York's art centers, close to many artists' studios--including Hassam's own, on West Fifty-seventh Street. It was also a theatrical hub, with the Majestic Theatre (1902) on its perimeter and the Century Theatre (1909) a few blocks up, at Sixty-second Street at Central Park West.
Hassam continued painting Flag pictures even after the Allied victory and the war's end on November 11, 1918. Saint Patrick's Day--1919 (plate 231) is one such painting, a postwar scene on an unspecified street in the rain. With the glistening pavement reflecting the banners along with a relatively small number of umbrella-holding figures, this is a work as much concerned with the pictorial examination of weather conditions as with patriotic celebration. The final work in the series is Victory Day, May, 1919 (plate 232), a street-level view in which American flags are combined with blue and white victory pennants and red and white victory banners displayed in great profusion down Fifth Avenue. They hang over the strolling pedestrians and several of the distinctive green double-decker motorized buses introduced in the previous decade. The view is down the avenue from West Forty-ninth Street, just below Saint Patrick's, though the tall office buildings seem as much typological as actual, symbols of the skyscraper city. Hassam inscribed the picture "May 1919--9:30 A.M.," and Ilene Fort has suggested that the artist's specifying the time of day while omitting the exact date was intentional, perhaps to symbolize all victories of democracy over tyranny.
The Flag series was first exhibited as a group at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in New York on November 15, 1918, four days after the end of the war. Twenty-four pictures were on view; one writer noted that "Mr. Hassam has done for the flag what Monet did for the haystack." Twenty-two pictures from the series (the same number as of the Allied nations who had participated in the war) were subsequently shown at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in February 1919, and twenty-two again that May at the Milch Galleries in New York. Twenty-two paintings of the series were shown twice more in New York toward the end of 1919, first at the Church of the Ascension in late October, where the show served as a memorial to the recently deceased Theodore Roosevelt, and then at City College in mid-December. A group of nineteen Flag pictures was also brought together for a show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in February 1922. Hassam wanted the series to be kept united, but his asking price of $100,000 proved too high, despite the pictures' immense critical acclaim, and they had to be sold separately. Appropriately, The Avenue of the Allies--French Block, 1918, entered the collection of the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris (it is now housed in the Musee National de la Cooperation Franco-Americaine, Blerancourt, France).
Flags continued to supply Hassam with a rich artistic motif even outside New York, as evident in his watercolor Acorn Street, Boston, July, 1919 (plate 75). Hassam visited Cape Ann, Massachusetts, that month, and this view down a narrow, shaded street on Beacon Hill near the Boston State House, made presumably on his way to or from Gloucester, marks his presence in that city (probably on the Fourth of July), registering an enduring patriotic celebration.
The Flag series inspired countless other artists to record, at least once, patriotic celebrations centering on flags from Boston to Saint Louis. But only Hassam produced so extensive an achievement, and though he seems not to have been overtly or actively political, this was a sincerely patriotic as well as an artistic endeavor. Donelson Hoopes has noted that Hassam preserved a large collection of newspaper clippings about World War I, and in May 1917 he donated a number of paintings to benefit a war relief fund. And Ilene Fort has written: "Hassam was virulent in his dislike of Germany, and ardent in his promotion of America as a land of liberty and democracy." The Flag series won Hassam critical recognition as the embodiment of "a great revolt against brutality; [he] gave New York a sense of the existence of passionate nationalism in countries that this city knew of only as colored spots on the map." Hassam was already recognized as one of the artists most identified with "Americanness," but it was in these works that he was able to give the modern cityscape patriotic and spiritual resonance. This pictorial sequence constitutes one of the greatest achievements of American art.
|Childe Hassam: Cosmopolitan and Patriot||7|
|Beyond Impressionism: Hassam's Twentieth-Century Work||71|
|A World of Flowers|
|For God and Country|