Frederick Childe Hassam was born and raised in Dorchester, Massachusetts, but dropped out of high school in his third year. He started to study art seriously in 1877 at the age of 18, and in 1886 moved to Paris to attend the Académie Julian. However, it was not in this academic environment that Hassam first encountered Impressionism. This American Impressionist master was first exposed to Impressionism at various exhibitions in Parisian art galleries. He was deeply influenced by the French Impressionists and quickly began to incorporate their use of broken brushwork, intense colors, and overall light—techniques that he combined with a preference for American subject matter. Soon after his return in 1889, he settled in New York, where he and fellow artists John Twachtman (1853-1902) and J. Alden Weir (1852-1919) organized The Ten.
Hassam established his career with watercolor paintings that were mainly landscapes. His later work generally depicted urban scenes. As a result, Hassam’s body of work is characterized by an evolution of diverse styles. From 1900 until 1910, Hassam lived in New York and spent the summer months in artist colonies such as Old Lyme, Connecticut, where he painted The Dragon Cloud. He enjoyed painting the charms of quaint and rural destinations in New England and often sketched outdoors in the company of friends in rural locations. His landscape paintings form a stark contrast to his paintings of cityscapes.
Hassam’s The Dragon Cloud, Old Lyme is dominated by a large cloud resembling the mythical creature. When looking at this painting one is reminded of childhood memories of lying on the grass and staring at the sky, letting the mind wander while the clouds take on different shapes.
Le Jour du Grand Prix is a second and quite different example of Hassam’s work. Of the hundreds of American artists living in Paris, Hassam was the only one to focus on the contemporary city. Le Jour du Grand Prix shows fashionably dressed Parisians riding in a coach near the Arc de Triomphe on their way to the Grand Prix. Inaugurated in 1863, the Grand Prix was a 3,000-meter race for three-year-old horses held at the Longchamps racetrack every June. It soon became the grand social event of the season. To capture this moment, Hassam may have propped up his canvas on the seat of a cab, which may explain the shadow that fills the lower right corner. Surprisingly, he re-created the June sunshine some six months later in his studio. The painting won the Gold Medal at the Paris Salon of 1888 and was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Washington Monument is painted in monochromatic tones, using differentiating tones of blue to reflect the winter season. The season also explains the darker palette of this painting since winter days receive less sunlight than summer days. This seems to be an unusual approach since one might expect watercolor paintings to be full of light and vibrant colors, yet this painting is cool and solemn.
The Washington Monument fills nearly the entire painting, and dwarfs the building and trees below it. One can feel the energy with which this painting was executed and follow the artist’s brush strokes. This painting is a good example of Hassam’s practice of depicting the modern city softened by snow, rain, brilliant sunlight, or the fall of night.
Catskills, Grant House depicts the Catskills Mountains in New York State to the northwest of New York City. He also enjoyed seeking out subjects that were emblematic of rural life and had a historic past.
Two thirds of this painting is taken over by the mountain and vegetation, and only one third is given to the sky and clouds. Therefore, the painting’s palette is restricted to various hues of greens, browns, and blues. Despite its title, the house is rather difficult to find in the vast landscape. Hassam shows a place that is a stark contrast to New York City by painting a landscape in which nature still reigns over man. Hassam spent June of 1917 in the Catskills as well as in Exeter, New Hampshire, another wilderness virtually untouched by man. Hassam’s handling of the watercolor conveys a sketch-like immediacy that invites the viewer to see his thought process as he laid down every brushstroke.
Have you seen these four paintings by Hassam in person? Do you have a favorite? Why do you appreciate his work? Which of his styles and subjects speak to you? Why?
The Dragon Cloud and Le Jour du Grand Prix are currently on view in the Impressionist Gallery on the first floor.