Hassam (pronounced HASS'm;) (known to all as Childe, pronounced like child) was born in his family home in a suburb of Boston in 1859. His father Frederick was a cutlery merchant and descended from a long line of New Englanders, while his mother Rosa was a native of Maine. He demonstrated an interest in art early in his life. He had his first lessons in drawing and watercolor while attending the Mather public school, but his parents took little notice of his nascent talent.
A disastrous fire in November 1872 wiped out much of Boston's commercial district including his father's business. To help out the family, Hassam dropped out of high school and his father lined up a job for him in the accounting department of publisher Little Brown & Company. His poor aptitude for figures, however, convinced his father to allow him to pursue an art career, and Hassam found employment with George Johnson, a wood engraver. He quickly proved an adept draftsman ("draughtsman" in the Boston directory) and he produced designs for commercial engravings, such as images for letterheads and newspapers. Around 1879, Hassam began creating his earliest oil paintings but his preferred medium was watercolors, mostly outdoor studies.
In 1882, Hassam became a free-lance illustrator, (known as a "black-and-white man" in the trade), and established his first studio. He specialized in illustrating children's stories for magazines such as Harper's Weekly, Scribner's Monthly magazine, and The Century. He continued to develop his technique while attended drawing classes at the Lowell Institute, a division of MIT, and at the Boston Art Club, where he took life painting classes.
By 1882, Hassam was exhibiting publicly and had his first solo exhibition, of watercolors, at the Williams and Everett Gallery in Boston. The following year, his friend Celia Thaxter convinced him to drop his first name and thereafter he was known simply as "Childe Hassam". He also began to add a crescent Celia Thaxter symbol in front of his signature, whose meaning is not known.
Having had relatively little formal art training, Hassam was advised by his friend (and fellow Boston Art Club member) Edmund H. Garrett to take a "study trip" with him to Europe during the summer of 1883. Hassam and Garrett traveled through out Great Britain, The Netherlands, France, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, studying the old masters together and creating watercolors of the European countryside. He was particularly impressed with the watercolors of J. M. W. Turner. Sixty-seven of the watercolors Hassam did on his trip formed the basis of his second exhibition in 1884. Hassam married Kathleen Doan after his return.
After returning to Boston, Hassam resumed his studio illustration and in good weather produced landscapes out-of-doors. He also joined the "Paint and Clay Club", expanding his contacts in the art community, which included prominent critics and "the readiest and smartest of our younger generation of artists, illustrators, sculptors, and decorators-the nearest thing to Bohemia that Boston can boast." Friends found him to be energetic, robust, outgoing, and unassuming, capable of self-mockery and considerate acts, but he could be argumentative and wickedly witty against the art community who opposed him. Hassam was particularly influenced by the circle of William Morris Hunt, who like the great French landscapist Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, emphasized the Barbizon tradition of working directly from nature. He absorbed their credo that "Atmosphere and light are the great things to work for in landscape painting." In 1885, a noted critic stated, in part responding to Hassam's early oil painting A Back Road (1884), "the Boston taste for landscape painting, founded on this sound French school, is the one vital, positive, productive, and distinctive tendency among our artists today...the truth is poetry enough for these radicals of the new school. It is a healthy, manly muscular kind of art."
By the mid-1880's, Hassam began painting cityscapes in nearby locales, his Boston Common at Twilight (1885) being one of his first. He joined a few other progressive American artists who were taking to heart the advice of French academic master Jean-Leon Gerome, who had a conversion from his traditional subject matter and told his American peers, "Look around you and paint what you see. Forget the Beaux-Arts and the models and render the intense life which surrounds you and be assured that the Brooklyn Bridge is worth the Colosseum of Rome and that modern America is as fine as the bric-a-brac of antiquity." However, one Boston critics firmly rejected his urban choice of subject as "very pleasant, but not art." Although he had shown steady improvement in his oil painting, before letting go of illustration Hassam decided to return to Paris with his wife. Through out their life together, she ran the household, arranged travel, and attended to other domestic tasks, but little is known about their private life. Hassam's success with illustration was sufficient to allow the couple to find a well-located apartment/studio with a maid near Place Pigalle, the center of the Parisian art community. With the exception of fellow American artist Frank Boggs, the couple lived among the French and socialized little with other American artists studying abroad.
The couple first sailed to Naples, then went on Rome and Florence. Though staying firmly in the Impressionists corner, he spent much time in galleries and churches studying the Old Masters. The Hassams arrived in Paris in the spring, and then traveled on to England. He continued producing paintings with a very light palette.
Back in New York in 1897, Hassam took part in the secession of Impressionists from the Society of American Artists, forming a new society known as The Ten. The group was energized if not initiated by Hassam, who was among the most radical of members. Their first show at the Durand-Ruel Gallery featured seven of his new European works. Critics dismissed his new work as "experimental" and "quite incomprehensible". Though still interested in including figures in his urban paintings, his new summer works done at Gloucester Harbor, Newport, Old Lyme, and other New England locales show increasing attention to pure landscapes and buildings. As his colors became paler and closer in tone to Monet's, which many viewers found unsettling and unfathomable, he was asked how he came up with a particular palette, and he responded unmysteriously, "subjects suggest to me a color scheme and I just paint."
Hassam was astute in marketing his work, and was represented by dealers and museums in several cities and abroad; so despite the negative critics and the conservative buyers, he did manage to keep selling and painting without having to resort to teaching in order to survive financially. A colleague described Hassam as an artist "with a keen knowledge of distribution, the tactical ability to place his work." As the new century began, some three decades after the Impressionists first exhibitions in France, Impressionists finally gained a legitimacy in the American art community, and Hassam began to sell to major museums and receive jury awards and medals, vindicating his belief in his vision. In 1906, he was elected Academician of the National Academy of Design.
With the art market now eagerly accepting his work, by 1909 Hassam was enjoying great success, earning as much as $6,000 per painting. His close friend and fellow artist J. Alden Weir commented to another artist, "Our mutual friend Hassam has been in the greatest of luck and merited success. He sold his apartment studio and has sold more pictures this winter, I think, than ever before and is really on the crest of the wave. So he goes around with a crisp, cheerful air."
The Hassams returned to Europe in 1910 to find Paris much changed, "The town is all torn up like New York. Much building going on. They out American the Americans!" In the midst of the vibrant city, Hassam painted July Fourteenth, Rue Daunou during the Bastille Day celebrations, a forerunner of his famous Flag series.
When he came back to New York, Hassam began a series of "window" paintings which he continued until the 1920's, usually featuring a contemplative female model in a flowered kimono before a light-filled curtained or open window, as in The Goldfish Window (1916). The scenes were popular with museums and quickly snapped up. Hassam was especially prolific and energetic in the 1910-1920 period causing one critic to comment, "Think of the appalling number of Hassam pictures there will be in the world by the time the man is seventy years old!" In reality, Hassam did produce thousands of works in nearly every medium during his life. Where his friend Weir might paint six canvases in a season, Hassam would do forty.
During that period he also returned to watercolors and oils of coastal scenes, as exemplified by The South Ledges, Appledore (1913), which employs an unusually balanced division of sea and rocks diagonally across a nearly square canvas, giving equal weight to sea and land, water and rock. He also produced some still-life paintings.
Hassam had six paintings on display at the famous Armory Show of 1913, where Impressionism was finally viewed as mainstream and nearly an historical style, and displaced by the clamor over the radical revolution of Cubism, fresh from Europe. He and Weir were the oldest exhibitors, nicknamed at a press dinner as "the mammoth and the mastodon of American Art". Hassam viewed the new art trends from abroad with alarm, stating "this is the age of quacks, and quackery, and New York City is their objective point." He was also displeased that the Armory Show took away attention from the latest exhibits of The Ten.
In 1913, Hassam was honored with a separate gallery showing at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition featuring thirty-eight pictures. Around 1915, he renewed his interest in etching and lithography, producing more than 400 of these works during his later career; but while artistically satisfying, they achieved only so-so public acceptance, as he commented, "some sell and some of the best do not."
In 1919, Hassam purchased a home in East Hampton, New York. Many of his late paintings employed nearby subjects in that town and on Long Island. The post-war art market boomed in the 1920's, and Hassam commanded escalating prices, though some critics thought he had became static and repetitive, as American art had begun to move on to the Realism of the Ashcan School and artists like Edward Hopper and Robert Henri. In 1920, he received the Gold Medal of Honor for lifetime achievement from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and numerous other awards through the 1920's. Hassam traveled relatively little in his last years, but did visit California, Arizona, Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico. He died in East Hampton in 1935, at age 75.
To the end, he denounced modern trends in art, and he termed "art boobys" all the painters, critics, collectors, and dealers who got on the bandwagon and promoted Cubism, Surrealism and other avant-garde movements." From his death until a revival of interest in American Impressionism in the 1960's, Hassam was considered among the "abandoned geniuses". As French Impressionist paintings reached stratospheric prices in the 1970's, Hassam and other American Impressionists gained renewed interest and were bid up as well.