Garden City

John Haber
in New York City

Childe Hassam: American Impressionist

When a president wraps himself in the flag, he becomes smaller, as if he and America alike had retreated into a cocoon. When Childe Hassam unwrapped the flag, he had found his most memorable image. Few artists since before the Renaissance have taken an icon as their subject, and fewer still have made it an icon themselves.

For Hassam, it singled out a moment of celebration. He had passed fifty by the time he painted rallies, mostly along Fifth Avenue, during World War I. He, America, and its proudest city had arrived, and what more was there to say? Childe Hassam's Allies Day, May 1917 (National Gallery of Art, 1917)

From his retrospective at the Met this summer, quite a bit. It shows an artist who found his subject early and kept at it. It shows an American Impressionist out to rival the French, but with little interest in what made them precursors of modern art.

Conversely, it shows an artist whose decorative, nostalgic view of cities made him by necessity a painter of modern life. More than almost anyone, he looks back to his roots in the New England elite and ahead to the urban scene. His dual focus makes his a story in miniature of American Impressionism and Realism.

Capture the flag

Hassam kept painting almost till the day he died, and his retrospective boasts of the fact. Even so, it includes almost nothing from his last twenty years, when a darker realism was supplanting his style. William Merritt Chase, perhaps the most prominent American Impressionist, had died during the war. They had done their work, and America had asserted its place among nations—in politics and in modern art.

It makes for a good story, and no doubt it has the virtue of being true. Call it the French skewering of "how New York stole the idea of the avant-garde"—only displaced from Abstract Expressionism, World War II, and the European invasion of American mass culture to some thirty years before. And why not? In Europe, world war brought disillusionment and cracks in empire. In America, the Armory Show had taken place, and early jazz was becoming an international style. Today, a New Yorker knows all too well about endless displays of the flag during wartime, standing for strong passions and embattled territory.

All well and good, but it leaves out pretty much all of Hassam's career and the specificity of American painting. Before I get too keen on social history, I better remember that Hassam's understanding of it arose less from political maturity or opportunism than from the subject of his art. I had best take a closer look at what makes the New York scenes so emblematic of an Impressionist. Contrast them with another American icon, one painted after a second world war.

Only Jasper Johns has made more of the American flag, but Hassam shares nothing of the 1950s, with its divided loyalties about icons, art, and politics. Johns does not just represent a flag. He creates one out of canvas, pigments, and encaustic—to the point that one can start to see many another symbol as a fiction, a work of art. Hassam takes art as a representation of a social scene—without divisions and with the object that give it pleasure and meaning.

With Johns, one can no longer deny the flag's awkward proximity, and one hardly knows how to salute it. Hassam's flags mark repeated horizontals, helping to map the sweeping space of a great city. Along with the buildings, they line and its demarcate broad avenues, which carry the eye into the canvas. He himself maintains to great a distance to salute, entering all this only with his eye. Hassam prefers the vantage point of a window. A consummate city-dweller, he may be the one plein-air painter who would rather work indoors.

Johns's flag inherits the airless rigidity of the art object and the museum. It can no more flutter in the breeze than the one planted on the moon. Hassam's flags wave less in the air than in a sea of color—of flags, people, and their surroundings. Where Johns's lush surfaces hold light, Hassam's dry strokes, with plenty of white, layer over the surface, like specimens of New York's native flora.

Humanity in flower

For this Impressionist, the city was nature—with humanity its flowers. One can see it from the artist's very first works, in his native Boston.

He loves the long, unbroken avenues of the Back Bay, lined by the elegant houses. He chooses not a single vanishing point, but a corner from which two avenues diverge, accentuating their breadth—and, as the Met points out, their resemblance to the boulevards of Paris. Bright yellows and deep greens, borrowed from the Barbizon painters in France, clarify a more sober background. They lay out patches of light and dark that demarcate successive stage of depth, much like the later flags. Women get a prominent role in the foreground traffic, where a French painter would have nestled them beside a tree or a pier. They play nature to Boston's culture.

He quickly learns the brighter colors of Impressionism and its immersion in the scene at hand. He takes to storefronts with flowers and girls in peasant dress. He delights in them all as classless, decorative elements. One can never mistake them for the fashionable portraiture of Thomas Dewing—or even such greater revolutionaries as John Singer Sargent and James McNeil Whistler. Rather, they root the modern city at once in traditional, rural values and a traditional fondness for luxury. Like the flags, they are a humanized, more luxurious nature.

He has high aspirations, which suit his reserve and his class. It comes with his Byronic first name—originally his middle name—and his Eastern-sounding last name, a corruption of the English Horsham. Hassam gets to play on the residual exoticism of America while demanding asking to compete with Europe. And he sets the competition on his own privileged terms.

He visits Europe, but his style does not evolve all that much further. The Met, which muddles chronology in thematic arrangements, makes him seem more static still. He spends time on the Maine shore, but the rocks, too, turn into a kind of lush, private garden. When he shows an actual garden, it belongs not to the public but to his patron, and he takes care to tone down her ungainly figure just a bit.

He adopts the Impressionist brushstroke, but not the Impressionist eye. Nature holds still for him. Where Claude Monet uses color to construct light and space, Hassam admires the color of the passing scene against a more traditional tonal range. Where Edouard Manet confronts one with the shock of the new or hides it in smoke and mirrors, Hassam enjoys it. When he paints an object of affection, he chooses not a barmaid or a drinking companion but his wife.

Upper-class populism

Perhaps the Impressionist construction of space could never fully carry over to America, with its own conditions of humidity and light. Perhaps its discovery of a place for suburban play could not apply to America's division between its shrinking wilderness and its growing concentration in cities. Perhaps its description of nature as a weekend away could not apply to America's expansion into new, contested, and often idealized territory. Perhaps its backyard for the middle-class leisure could not suit the American association of leisure with an outmoded aristocracy, its dreams of a country in which everyone has equal opportunity. Perhaps its sense of the city as a spectacle of unsettling pleasures and dark nights of the soul could not yet describe America's relative prudery and practicality, its factories, offices, and violence.

Perhaps, although some paintings by Hassam and, especially, Dennis Miller Bunker come surprisingly close to Monet's color and light. Still, Hassam's conservatism and fixation on cities is his own mix, and it places him strikingly between American art's past and future.

A wrenching shift of the boundary between nature and culture into the city was the future of American realism. So was Hassam's point of view from a high window, with all its ambivalence about entering what one sees. Even the idea of a garden city bridged by skyscrapers anticipates Modernism, as in the hands of Le Corbusier.

Hassam did face change when he moved to New York, with an apartment on the Upper West Side, then newly fashionable. It had Central Park, a safe distance from downtown, and enough elevated trains and automobiles to connect it to the older elite of Washington Square.

In speaking on American realism this summer, I singled out a painting from Hassam's new apartment window. New residential towers rise in the foreground, but the innovative technology and manual labor implied by the scaffolding blend into the sky. The middle ground, strangely small and distant, could pass for wilderness, but the apparently rural houses in the background are the undeveloped Upper East Side, and the trees are Central Park, with a hint of the site that later became Tavern on the Green. And yet the elements of urban realism, down to a space increasingly excluding people at play, are already there.

Hassam really does pull the threads together with those flags. With all that impasto, his palette has never looked brighter and less academic. He takes pride in Fifth Avenue, but not as an imitation of Paris. He elevates the flag, but alongside those of other nations. The patriotism comes mixed with a new populism, quite distinct from his usual private society. He has at last discovered America, and it will take only a little longer for other artists to define its conflicts, its urgency, and its future.

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"Childe Hassam: American Impressionist" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 12, 2004.


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