Editor's note: The following essay, with notes, was rekeyed and reprinted on May 16, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the author and Worcester Art Museum. The essay was previously published in the 88-page illustrated 1997 exhibition catalogue titled American Impressionism: Paintings of Promise, ISBN 0-7649--0359-4. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue containing the essay, please contact the Worcester Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

American Impressionism: Paintings of Promise

by David R. Brigham



 

INTERIOR AS SANCTUARY

 

If Hassam was willing to venture into the streets, he also sought interior spaces that offered rest from their activity. The New York window pictures, one of his most successful series of canvases, feature solitary female figures in the interior of his Fifty-seventh Street studio.[26] Typically in these works, a woman, either seated or standing, is set off center. Her limbs are held close to her body, and her movements are limited to suggest repose. A bank of long vertical windows behind the figure admits light that is often moderated by gauzy curtains. In contrast to his outdoor urban views, Hassam's window pictures are pervaded by stillness and silence. The city is visible through the windows, manifest in skyscrapers and parks, but its presence is muted.

In The Table Garden from 1910 (Plate 23), Hassam relates organic beauty to the constructed forms of city life. The figure stands at right with her back to the viewer, her face turned left to allow a glimpse of her profile. Yet her eyes and expression remain hidden, generalizing her appearance. Her body forms a strong vertical, which Hassam further stabilizes by resting her left hand on the round table at left. Echoing her upright form are elongated plants in the room and apartment buildings rising outside. Two small rock gardens, in which the plants grow, occupy the center of the tabletop; a third one is hinted at by the green stems at the right. The widow frames and curtain folds create still another set of vertical lines, offering a transition between the natural forms inside and the built forms beyond. The woman's gaze leads the viewer to the tall buildings, with columns of windows emphasizing their upward reach.

Hassam also unites interior and exterior with color. The woman's kimono is predominantly blue, a hue that Hassam adds strategically to the windows and roofs of the tall buildings. Similarly, the buildings reflect peach and yellow light, colors the artist uses to highlight the contours of the plants. Touches of yellow also brighten the woman's hair and dress. This unity was clearly intentional and meant to convey meaning. Explaining another window picture containing similar elements, Hassam wrote, "[T]he Chinese lilys [sic] springing up from the bulbs is intended to typefy [sic] and symbolize groth -- the groth [sic] of a great city."[27] The buildings themselves suggest rocky cliffs, not unlike the immovable rocks of Appledore. Like the uninhabited places that Hassam found near his favorite busy summer resort, these urban cliffs hide the hundreds of people living behind their glimmering exterior walls.

In 1911 Hassam painted The Breakfast Room, Winter Morning (Plate 24), which received rave reviews in the New York show of new works by The Ten and was purchased by the Worcester Art Museum from its fourteenth annual exhibition later that year.[28] Here the format is horizontal rather than vertical. A woman is seated at left, a plate in her lap, peeling an orange. A flower-filled vase and a platter of fruit add bright yellows and oranges to an otherwise cool palette. A span of five windows establishes a steady rhythm across the canvas, varied slightly by the broad post toward the right. Muted light filters though the diaphanous curtains, making the whole surface shimmer in subtle tonal variations. The evenly distributed light obscures details, and although the woman faces the viewer her features are only generally defined. Outside a broad expanse of the city is visible, with one structure towering above the rest. A contemporary critic identified this as the Flatiron Building, which rose 286 feet and was widely acclaimed as a beacon of modern life when it opened in 1902.[29]

As in The Table Garden, formal devices relate the woman in The Breakfast Room, Winter Morning to her interior and exterior environment. Her seated body creates an isoceles triangle, a shape that lends stability to the composition. Another triangle is implied, joining the woman, the Flatiron Building, and the bowl of fruit. A series of foreshortened circles -- the plate, the tabletop, and the fruit platter -- link the interior elements. However, the interior-exterior relationship is quite different from the one produced by the spatial dynamics in The Table Garden. Whereas the figure's gaze in the earlier painting directs the viewer outside, this woman faces into the room. Psychologically, The Breakfast Room interior is more firmly set apart from the city despite the wide bank of windows. In both paintings, the curtains and light make the forms outside less solid than those inside, a difference that is especially noticeable in The Breakfast Room. While the Flatiron Building may have been an assertive feature on the New York skyline, Hassam tames its presence with cool hues and diffused light.

Hassam's major canvas of 1912 was The New York Window (Plate 26); it proved to be yet another celebrated achievement, winning the William A. Clark First Prize and the Corcoran Gold Medal at the Corcoran Biennial, that year entitled The Fourth Exhibition: Oil Paintings by Contemporary American Artists. In this work Hassam returned to a vertical format, but several elements from the 1911 composition remained intact: A woman is seated at left, with a bowl of fruit to her right and a group of windows behind her. One contemporary response captures the mood of the painting:

Twilight has fallen, or it is afternoon of a gray
day; through the window shadowy forms of
great buildings loom as ghosts against the sky.
It is the hour of rest, of meditation, and every
line of the figure seated by the window conveys
this suggestion.[30]

Indeed, The New York Window is considerably more solemn than either of the previous two works, a feeling created in large part by the woman's downward gaze. Her complete inactivity, indicated by her posture and hand placement, accentuates the melancholy air of the image. The treatment of light also adds a somber note. Although the woman's face is in three-quarter view, it is also mainly in shadow, distancing her psychologically. Perhaps Hassam was attempting to suggest that this was a woman keenly affected by the burdens of modern life, a condition then termed hysteria and considered to be an ailment suffered particularly by bourgeois females. According to historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, hysteria was normally described as encompassing malaise and depression.[31] Though the figures in all three window paintings examined here rest in solitude, the contemplative hush of this picture may more specifically imply that the woman is convalescing, Even if this was not Hassam's specific intention, the hope and promise so commonly portrayed in American Impressionism appear in this canvas to be a desired, rather than an actual, condition.

 

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About the author

Dr. David R. Brigham earned his Ph.D. in American civilization in 1992 from the University of Pennsylvania with the dissertation, "A World in Miniature: Charles Willson Peale's Philadelphia Museum and Its Audience, 1786-1827." He holds an M.A. in American civilization/museum studies, also from the University of Pennsylvania, and bachelor's degrees in English and accounting from the University of Connecticut. He has published several books and catalogues, including the CD-ROM, Early American Art: A Window on History and Culture, and numerous scholarly articles and essays.

Brigham has worked at the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, since 1996, currently serving as director of collections and exhibitions. He organized there exhibitions on Hudson River School landscapes, American Impressionism, Winslow Homer, and Paul Revere silver and prints.

 

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