Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Art Allies

Born on this date in 1859, Childe Hassam painted some of the finest Impressionist paintings ever done by an American artist. As much as he loved Paris and the countryside of the French Impressionists, Hassam loved even more his native country, especially the streets of New York City, his home for most of his life. During World War I, Hassam painted many scenes of the patriotic fervor surrounding the push for America to enter the war and the patriotic frenzy that broke out when it finally entered the fray. Allies Day, May 1917 (above) shows the flags of the United States of America, France, and England hanging from the buildings lining the day’s parade route. Without showing the throngs of people gathered, Hassam captures the spirit of the time in the bold colors of the flags, which drape rhythmically off into space. Throughout his career, Hassam himself forged alliances with other artists that helped further his own career as well as the school of Impressionism in America.

Hassam discontinued using his given first name, Frederick, in favor of his unique middle name Childe (pronounced “child”) to add to his artistic mystique. A high-school dropout, Hassam learned wood engraving before moving on to illustration and watercolor. While in London, he admired the watercolors of J.M.W. Turner. In Paris, he studied with Salon academics but felt drawn more to the outlaw style of the Impressionists exhibiting throughout the city. Hassam succeeds most when he brings that Impressionist style to bear on uniquely American scenes, such as Winter in Union Square (above, from 1889). He gilds “the Gilded Age” with the soft brushstrokes and atmospheric effects of Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir while still capturing the distinctly American architecture, free of the old styles of the big cities of Europe. The emergence of photography during this period allows us to see what the New York of this time looked like, but Hassam’s seasonal paintings of the city allow us to feel what it was like to live back then.

When the American art establishment, embodied by the Society of American Artists, resisted Impressionism in America, Hassam resigned and helped form the group known as The Ten with his friends and fellow Impressionists J. Alden Weir and John Henry Twachtman. Like Weir and Twachtman, Hassam also painted the rural scenery of New England, as in his Oyster Sloop, Cos Cob (above, from 1902). Again, Hassam paints a classic boating scene found often in French Impressionism but injects a new note with the distinctly New England feel. Sadly, Hassam and the American Impressionists faded from the limelight as America’s wartime alliances fostered an international interchange that introduced new modern art movements that pushed them to the margins of art history. Not until the 1960s did Hassam and the Impressionists find a new audience, hungry to find early examples of America’s entry into the world of European art.

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