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Childe Hassam: Impressionist in the West

December 11, 2004 - March 6, 2005


In 1904 and 1908, leading American Impressionist Childe Hassam visited Oregon and the surrounding region, to try his hand at capturing the visual essence of the exhilarating terrain of the West. Traveling throughout the state and into Washington and Idaho, Hassam painted over 60 landscapes, seascapes, portraits, and still lifes. Organized by the Portland Art Museum, the exhibition Childe Hassam: Impressionist in the West brings together for the first time as a group paintings from these two trips, as well as paintings from Hassam's larger body of work.  Also on view are works by Portland Art Museum founder, C.E.S. Wood, the lawyer, writer, art collector, and fellow painter who convinced Hassam to come west and explore the beauty of the region, often painting side-by-side with him.

The American Impressionist Childe Hassam is undoubtedly one of the best loved of American artists. Hassam was a highly prolific artist with an extensive oeuvre encompassing prints, drawings, and both watercolor and oil paintings. Despite the number of exhibitions and publications devoted to him, there are still rich veins of material to uncover and explore within this large body of work. One such untapped group of images is the assemblage of paintings he produced during his trips west in the early 1900s; most notably those he created during his extended sojourns in Oregon in 1904 and 1908.

These works as have deep ties to the history of both the Museum and the Portland community at large. But the works also have significance in the larger context of Hassam's overall career. They provide insights into such technical aspects as his approaches to changing light and atmospheric conditions in new environments and the ways in which his painting technique and compositional structure varied by subject and circumstance. They also reflect the artist's broader concerns, such as his staunch nationalism and his desire to create art that was purely American in both content and style.


Childe Hassam: An Introduction

Frederick Childe Hassam was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1859 to middle-class parents with deep New England roots. He studied painting in Boston and in Paris at the Académie Julian and was exposed regularly to the works of the French Impressionists and Neoimpressionists. By the time he returned to America in the fall of 1889, he had developed a fully Impressionist style focusing on urban scenes painted with broken brushwork and a high-keyed palette. He translated this style to his American subjects and quickly became known for his lively Impressionist images. Traveling and painting the motif at hand also became a hallmark pattern of Hassam's career, and it is in this context that he undertook his trips out West, first to Oregon in 1904 and 1908, and then to California in 1914-15.


C. E. S. Wood

It is thought that around 1890 Charles Erskine Scott Wood was first introduced to Childe Hassam. Wood was a Portland attorney and cultural leader, serving as a founding trustee for the Portland Art Museum and a director of the Portland Library Association. Perhaps Wood's most far-reaching contribution to Portland's cultural life was in his role as a staunch advocate of American art and as an informal agent for a number of American artists. Commissioning a mural for his home library and offering to pay expenses, it was Wood who enticed Hassam to make a trek West.


Hassam's Trips West

Hassam first traveled to Portland in August 1904. During his two-and-a-half-month stay, Hassam painted a number of images of Portland and the surrounding fertile Willamette Valley, and he and Wood also traveled throughout the state together. Hassam first painted watercolor views of the Cascade Mountains, as well as Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens in southern Washington. Later that same month, he and Wood visited the northern Oregon coast where he captured the rocky basalt coastline in both oil and watercolor. After visiting the Harney Desert, Hassam went back East. He returned to Oregon in 1908 with the goal of making an extended visit to the Harney Desert to paint. Though Hassam explored other subjects during this sojourn, images of eastern Oregon comprise the bulk of his production on this trip. His primary aim this second time around appears to have been to revisit and master this particular motif.


The Oregon Paintings: Subjects and Techniques

During Hassam's two Oregon trips it is certain that he painted at least 60 works, but in all he may have produced more than 100 images in watercolor, pastel, charcoal, and oil-a substantial body of material. In addition to the Oregon scenes, this group of work also includes images from southwestern Idaho, southern Washington, and the area around Puget Sound. The western paintings, with all their diversity of subject matter, express themes present in Hassam's larger oeuvre, with occasional variations specific to his location. Hassam liked to paint a range of subjects, and those broad interests are reflected in the Oregon paintings, which include desert, mountain, coastal, and valley landscapes, portraits, still lifes, urban scenes, and nudes in idealized landscapes.

Technical diversity is an oft-noted hallmark of Hassam's style. He was known for variations in brushstroke and texture, adapting his technique to suit his subject-choosing the palette, brushwork, and composition he thought would best capture his motif rather than constantly repeating a set formula. Variations such as these occur in the western paintings and, at least in part, relate directly to the subject matter. In addition, the surface variations reflect the speed with which Hassam was producing certain works and the fact that he created some paintings en plein air rather than in the studio. (right: Childe Hassam, Ecola Beach, Oregon, 1904, oil on canvas. Collection of Fred and Annette Gellert)

By the time of his trips out West, Hassam had established a routine of intensely investigating a variety of landscapes. It is not surprising, therefore, that much of his artistic production while in Oregon consisted of views of the region's many natural environments. The state is unusual in having a rocky coastline, two major rivers, lush inland valleys, large volcanic mountains, and a rugged high desert environment all within an east-west span of about 350 miles. Hassam reveled in these varied settings.

Hassam was clearly fascinated by the expansive skies, panoramic views, and insistent horizontality of the eastern Oregon landscape as well as its ruggedness and emptiness. He was also intrigued by its constantly shifting weather conditions and the resultant changes in light, color, and atmosphere. As in his East Coast scenes, Hassam's western paintings reflect his abiding sensitivity to the beauty of the world around him: its geology and structure, its atmospheric conditions, and its changeable hues and textures at different times and seasons.


The Oregon Works: Hassam's Own View

All evidence suggests that Hassam was very pleased with the Oregon paintings and considered them a significant body of work. His pride and pleasure in many of the individual works lasted throughout his career. The most significant mark of his favor was the inclusion of a substantial group of the Oregon paintings in the gallery devoted to his work at the 1910 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. It was an opportunity for artists to showcase their best and most innovative work. Hassam chose to exhibit 38 works, of which eight were paintings from his recent trips to Oregon. These works represented a cross-section of Hassam's Oregon production, from both the 1904 and 1908 trips, and a variety of subjects, from coastal and desert landscapes to portraits and Portland scenes. (right: Childe Hassam, Mt Hood, 1908, oil on canvas. Gift of Henry Cabell, 53.22, Portland Art Museum, Oregon)

Critical response to the images was positive. The Oregon newspapers were enthusiastic about the paintings, feeling that despite his East Coast origins, Hassam had managed to capture their unique landscape. In one characteristic quote, a journalist observed that the paintings "that go East will give New Yorkers a clear idea of the Eastern Oregon country. In them the buoyant color of the whole region is also admirably depicted. Those who know that part of our state feel at once at home among these great varicolored cliffs and acres of dust, green sage against red hills and arched by the bluest of skies. It is all allegro, forte. There is no distrust, no dimness, no mysticism." The response of national critics was also positive. A typical review read: "A very striking landscape group in oil, which in subjects and style amounts to something like a new departure for Childe Hassam, as painted in the Harney Desert of eastern Oregon-a wild region of arid buttes and sandy plateaus, breaking now and again into a fertile valley."


The Appeal of the West

Hassam loved painting landscapes and one of the most immediate appeals of the Northwest would have been this new and breathtakingly beautiful location in which to paint. Critics have long noted Hassam's emotional and sensual connection to his landscape subjects. Furthermore, the western trips no doubt fed into Hassam's restlessness and sense of adventure. Hassam often identified himself as an explorer, calling himself "the Marco Polo of painters." He also liked to claim that he was the first artist to paint the landscape of Oregon, particularly the Oregon desert.

Finally, the western landscape resonated with one of Hassam's broader agendas, namely, his desire for a truly American art.  He wanted not only to see the development of a uniquely American form of painting but also to be seen as one of its most important representatives, whose work reflected his patriotism. He tended to deny influences (both for himself and for American art in general) from the French Impressionists and specifically Claude Monet. Hassam's interest in painting the varied landscapes of the nation was quintessentially American, and it aligned him philosophically with his predecessors, the painters of the Hudson River School. By choosing to paint the West in its varied aspects, both civilized and wild, Hassam encapsulated and uniquely interpreted one of the last great emblematically American environments.

Hassam's trips to Oregon offered him an opportunity to stretch creatively-to explore some of his favorite subjects and personal interests through the lens of a wholly fresh environment and atmosphere.  He proved to himself and to his public his abilities to capture the world around him in all its forms and moods. The western paintings are a captivating interlude in Hassam's wide-ranging career, a body of work that shows an artist at his most basic task-grappling with new experiences and creating a coherent, artistic record of that encounter.

Childe Hassam: Impressionist in the West is organized by the Portland Art Museum and curated by Margaret Bullock, Associate Curator of American Art, Portland Art Museum.

A full-color, hardbound catalogue written by Margaret Bullock will be available in the Museum Shop. The book includes a forward by H. Barbara Weinberg, Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art and curator of the recent Hassam retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Marquand Books of Seattle, Washington is the publisher.

In conjunction with the exhibition Childe Hassam: Impressionist in the West, Will South, curator of collections for the Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, examined the Impressionist movement in California in a lecture held January 16. South is a frequent lecturer on American Impressionism and the development of Modernism lecture on California Impressionism. This lecture was supported by the Alan Ostrow Memorial Fund.


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