Frederick Childe Hassam was one of the most prominent American Impressionist painters. While Childe Hassam - he suppressed his first name later in life - is best known for his beach scenes and cityscapes, he is among the most prolific artists of his period. The painter has created more than 3,000 works, with techniques spanning from oil painting to lithographs. This ability to work with many different mediums propelled Modernist aesthetics in the USA and granted him a place among the most commercially successful painters of his age. Childe Hassam's paintings embody Impressionistic form while depicting the urbanscapes of American life.
The Hassam's settled in the Dorchester region around 1631. Frederick Childe Hassam was born in the same village near Boston in October 1859.
From a young age, he was in contact with artworks and other antiques, as Frederick Fitch Hassam, his father, collected them. His mother, Rosa Delia Hathorne, was born in Maine and descended from William Hathorne, as well as famed novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Nathaniel's work dealt with the exploration of the contradictions of Puritans' morality.
Some historians trace Childe Hassam's work ethic back to the Puritan roots of both his father's and mother's family. This link to culture and religiousness is something that the artist took pride in and is used as a key to understanding his depictions of the United States.
His physical features often got him mistaken for a descendant of the Middle East, mostly because of his eyes, darker complexion, and the pronunciation of his last name. Hassam took in the character of Washington Irving's novel, Tales of the Alhambra, and gave himself the nickname "Muley," based on the Arabic word Mawlä, which means Master or Lord. Later in his life, he added a crescent moon on his signature to reinforce the rumors about his blood ties to Middle-eastern descent.
Despite already displaying an interest in art in his early days, it seems his parents either weren't aware of this or had different plans for their child. The Hassam family life changed after a fire destroyed his father's business and much of Boston's commercial area. In 1880, they moved to Hyde Park, New York, and the young Hassam left high school to work and help his family. His father began working as a publisher accountant, while the artist, who was already studying woodcut print, found a job with British engraver George Johnson.
Hassam had the habit of painting watercolor studies during his free time, and by 1879, he was making his first oil paintings. To make a living, the artist worked designing commercial engraving, becoming an illustrator, and starting his studio in 1882. The artist had to work with several magazines providing them different illustrations.
Although Hassam was already a professional illustrator, he was interested in establishing a career as a painter. He kept attending classes at the Boston Art Club and the Lowell Institute. One year later, Hassam was showing his watercolor paintings in Boston in his first solo exhibition. During this time, he dropped "Frederick" from his name, a recommendation from his friend, poet Celia Thaxter.
Following a fellow student's tip, Hassam decided to spend a couple of months abroad to study the Old Masters in Europe. Along with Edmund Garrett - his friend who was also a member of the Boston Art Club - they traveled to Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The artists spent two months on the continent.
Hassam was particularly taken by J. M. W. Turner's watercolor landscapes, an inspiration for him to portray the European countryside during his trip as well. The Barbizon School and their way of painting directly from nature inspired Hassam, especially the work of William Morris Hunt. These two different influences, French and American, served as the basis for the style and atmosphere Childe Hassam mastered throughout his career.
In 1884, the artist married Kathleen Maude Doane, a friend of the family. Even though little is known about Kathleen, their close acquaintances saw them as a happy couple. They moved together to Columbus Avenue, a place where Hassam's interest in cityscapes increased, and he made the best of his early work. Increasingly, he started to paint en plein air, also known as outdoor painting and depicted modern subjects.
In 1884, he made his second solo show having the watercolors made in Europe as its basis. He started giving classes at the Clowes Art School, Boston's most prominent art institution. The voyage to Europe was the last experience that confirmed his strong interest in a painter's career.
Along with other American artists of the time, Hassam was going against the strict norms of the Academy. While foreign influence is palpable in his work, Modern painters were deeply concerned in applying the visual innovations of Europe in the portrayal of their surroundings. It's indisputable that, to some extent, there is a mild and smooth representation of an epic and greater sentiment of national pride and identity formation in their works.
In 1886, the painter and his wife moved near the Place Pigalle in Paris, which the art community frequently attended. He studied drawing under Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger in the Académie Julien, a famous institution of the period.
Even though Hassam had become a professional painter relatively recently, his work had already matured. He was not only channeling the influences of Impressionist art in this return to Europe but observing and learning from all Modern painters. His manifested inspirations from this period are Johan Jongkind, Alfred Sisley, and Turner.
Those are the defining years of Hassam's manner. He seemed attracted not only to the trailblazing spirit of the Modernists but also of the juste milieu painters - a term applied to painters that either didn't fully embrace Academicism but weren't formally inventive as their revolutionary counterparts. Their style displays the use of a present brushstroke, vivid and creative color use, but a particular aspect of realism that was prevalent and essential to the development of American painting.
He refined his pictorial sensibility while in Paris and returned to the US with a firm and personal grasp of Impressionism. During his stay at the French Capital, he also participated in three Salons but won only a bronze medal. His pictures gain a more varied and chromatic palette. The couple moved to New York City in 1889.
Hassam wasn't the kind of artist to retreat into a nostalgic and fantastic universe. His compromise was with his time's urban life, and in his perspective, a dedicated historical painter depicting his surroundings. Yet, he maintained frequent trips to New England to escape from the rushed and packed New York life. In many of these trips, some to an art colony in New Hampshire, the painter made breathtaking paintings, which consisted of garden scenes and seascapes. An example is the mesmerizing The Room of Flowers painting.
Although throughout the 1890s, most modern artists were already leaning towards Fauvism and Post-Impressionism, Hassam's manner kept faithful to his tender and subtle style. Finding other fellow painters producing under an Impressionist flair, he made many connections in groups and other associations. One of them was the American Water Color Society. He wasn't the only one interested in Modern painting in the US and wasn't the only successful painter at it as well. Many changes were arriving for figurative painting.
In the previous years, Childe Hassam had built a circle of painters that shared his thematic and formal interests. Along with Julian Alden Weir and John Henry Twatchman, and through Theodore Robinson, they had kept correspondence with Claude Monet, informing him about Impressionism's developments in the US.
He had spent a year in Europe after experiencing financial distress but decided to return. From the American Society of Artists, The Ten emerged. Their first exhibition was at the Durand-Ruel Gallery, and Hassam's work featured a new focus on landscapes. His palette was growing steadily paler, which unsettled part of the public.
After struggling with depression and alcohol abuse during his midlife, Hassam began having a different view of life, reflecting on his artistic production, which involved some Neo-Classical themed pieces. He decided to shift to a healthier lifestyle and began enjoying the best commercial period of his artistic career.
By 1909, the American artist's paintings were very successful and sought after.
One of Hassam's most praised works is a series of flag paintings he began in 1916, including The Fourth of July and The Avenue in the Rain. Despite this theme being usually portrayed in the still life genre, the painter decided to make them part of cityscapes, creating a robust immediate effect through the gestural brushstrokes.
Frederick Childe Hassam died in East Hampton, New York, in August 1935.