Saint Joseph College Gallery
West Hartford, CT
The following essay is the Introduction, by Vincenza Uccello, M.F.A., Director of Collections, Saint Joseph College Gallery, from the catalogue for the exhibition titled "Childe Hassam: Prints of New England and Long Island," held at the Gallery in March, 1990. This essay is reprinted with permission of the author and Saint Joseph College.
In 1874 a group of French artists boycotting the official Paris Salon presented their own exhibition of paintings. It was a momentous event in the history of art - the official recognition of a new plein-air style in painting. What these artists had in common was a deep involvement with rendering the ever-changing qualities of light and atmosphere in different hours of the day, different seasons and different weather conditions. Each painter experimented and devised methods and techniques of broken color and varying brush strokes to render the constant phenomenon of change relative to, and as an expression of, his own visual perception and artistic personality. The immediate reaction by the French public and critics alike was that of shock and derision. The movement was dubbed Impressionism after a painting by Monet entitled Impression, Sunrise.
By 1883, however, when two exhibitions, in Boston and New York, introduced the American public to the works of the French Impressionists, the style as a whole was more generally accepted. Interestingly, the exhibition in New York was a fund-raising effort to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty that was a gift of the French government.
Childe Hassam was 24 years old in 1883. That year he traveled to Europe. On his return, he exhibited his European watercolors and opened a studio in Boston. His career was launched.
Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1859, Hassam began work as an accountant. After two years he turned to wood engraving as an apprentice in Boston. Later he worked as a free-lance illustrator for magazines and book publishers while attending evening classes in drawing and painting.
In 1886, Hassam returned to Europe with his wife. He established a studio in Paris and enrolled briefly at the Académie Julian. It was during this longer stay in Paris, that Hassam began to paint in an Impressionist manner. There were other American artists working in France who were also influenced by French Impressionism. The Pennsylvania-born Mary Cassatt, made her home in Paris and had the distinction of being the only American identified with the French Impressionists Group. Lila Cabot Ferry spent ten summers in Giverny, sometimes living next door to Monet. Also, Theodore Robinson for a while worked with Monet at Giverny. J. Alden Weir and John H. Twachtman, close friends of Hassam, studied abroad and later were identified as American Impressionists. Hassam, however, minimized this French influence, preferring to trace the roots of plein-air painting to the English artists Constable, Turner and Bonnington, to whom the French had also turned for inspiration. What he possibly objected to most was a mistaken interpretation of Impressionism as a simplistic formula or technique of "dots and dashes" which could be used at random and indiscriminately to create such paintings.
Impressionism was much more than that. The broad scope of the movement's involvement with light, air, and atmosphere allowed each artist to develop a style based on the individual artist's visual perception that would inevitably reflect his or her own artistic temperament. Thus, we see Monet's work as different from that of Degas', Renoir's as different from Pissarro's, and Hassam's as different from Twachtman's.
When Hassam returned to this Country in 1889, his style was well developed and public acceptance came from both sides of the Atlantic. He participated in numerous exhibitions and annually received major awards. Hassam established a studio in New York. He loved America and, in particular, New England and New York. Although he traveled to many parts of the United States, he spent most winters in New York City and summers in various locations in New England: Gloucester; the Isles of Shoals off the coast of Maine-New Hampshire; Old Lyme; Cos Cob; and East Hampton, Long Island. He captured the spirit, light and air of these typically American scenes. Hassam maintained close ties with other American artists. In 1897 he, together with John H. Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, founded the Ten American Painters group. They exhibited annually for the next twenty years, firmly establishing themselves as the American Impressionists.
Childe Hassam was 56 years old when he turned to etching. He brought to this difficult medium an already-developed style and a great sensitivity and empathy for his beloved New England and New York. Many of the prints created during the first years of his involvement in etching are masterpieces of Impressionist printmaking. Recognition for his graphic achievement came almost immediately from many sources but most gratifyingly from contemporary printmakers Joseph Pennell, John Taylor Arms, Ernest Haskell, Albert Sterner and his close friend J. Alden Weir who had encouraged him to work in this medium.
In his graphic works, Hassam rendered every aspect (with the exception of color) of Impressionism that the French Masters had concerned themselves with in their paintings, qualities of tonal shadows, flickering light, and atmospheric nuances. His intuitive mastery was such that we are apt to overlook the extent and magnitude of his accomplishments, so naturally and completely do his prints convey the sense of time and place. A closer view of these graphic works reveals to us the ephemeral qualities of light and its multitudinous effects of reflections and shadows in all its vicissitudes. Interior light enveloping and creating mood, afternoon light reflecting shadows on white New England church facades, bright sunlight flickering on rivers and streams creating rhythmic harmonies, sunlit mornings, and evening shadows are all perceived through Hassam's sensitive poetic temperament and transmitted in graphic form.
Hassam has been called the "Monet of the Isles of Shoals." It is true that in painting such a similarity can be drawn in the leadership of their respective Impressionist groups; in subject matter (mostly out-of-doors); and in serial painting (gardens, trees, church facades, and flags). However, in the graphic medium the difference is striking. Monet did not work a single print while Hassam created three hundred and seventy-six etchings and forty-five lithographs. His prodigious work in this medium exceeds that of most Impressionist artists. In his graphic work, Hassam excels as an Impressionist artist not in quantity alone but in rendering the objective reality of light which was the underlying aim of Impressionism.
Between 1916 and 1918, he created a group of lithographs, first doing the drawings on location and then transferring them to stones or metal plates. These lithographs contain the same Impressionist qualities as his etchings and are remarkable for their spontaneity achieved with a minimum of means.
In 1920, Hassam was elected to the American Academy of
Arts and Letters, an honor which he treasured most and in whose affairs
he became increasingly involved. Hassam was active in painting and etching,
reaping honors and awards until the end of his life. His work is represented
in every leading museum throughout this country. He died in 1935 at the
age of 75. As a last gesture of love and trust in American art, he willed
his works to the American Academy of Arts and Letters to be sold so that
works of art by contemporary American and Canadian artists would be purchased
and donated to museums in the United States and Canada. Six etchings in
this exhibition are from the Collection [of the] American Academy and Institute
of Arts and Letters, New York.
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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11
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