Biography of Childe Hassam, American Impressionist Painter

Childe Hassam the water garden
"The Water Garden" (1909). Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Childe Hassam (1859-1935) was an American painter who played a crucial role in popularizing impressionism in the United States. He formed a breakaway group of artists devoted to the style known as The Ten. By the end of his life, he was one of the world's most commercially successful artists.

Fast Facts: Childe Hassam

  • Full Name: Frederick Childe Hassam
  • Known For: Painter
  • Style: American Impressionism
  • Born: October 17, 1859 in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Died: August 27, 1935 in East Hampton, New York
  • Spouse: Kathleen Maude Doane
  • Education: Academie Julian
  • Selected Works: "Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston" (1885), "Poppies, Isles of Shoals" (1891), "Allies Day, May 1917" (1917)
  • Notable Quote: "Art, to me, is the interpretation of the impression which nature makes upon the eye and brain."

Early Life and Education

Born into a New England family that traced its ancestry to 17th-century English settlers, Childe Hassam explored art from an early age. He grew up in Boston and was often amused that the surname Hassam made many think that he had an Arabian heritage. It began as Horsham back in England and went through several spelling changes before the family settled on Hassam.

The Hassam family suffered the failure of their cutlery business in 1872 after a catastrophic fire swept through the Boston business district. Childe went to work to help support his family. He lasted only three weeks working in the accounting department of the publisher Little, Brown, and Company. Working in a wood engraving shop was a better fit.

By 1881, Childe Hassam had his own studio where he worked as both a draftsman and a freelance illustrator. Hassam's work appeared in magazines like "Harper's Weekly," and "The Century." He'd begun to paint, too, and his preferred medium was watercolor.

Childe Hassam
Corbis Historical / Getty Images

First Paintings

In 1882, Childe Hassam had his first solo exhibition. It consisted of approximately 50 watercolors displayed in a Boston art gallery. The primary subject matter was landscapes of places Hassam visited. Among those locations was the island of Nantucket.

Hassam met poet Celia Thaxter in 1884. Her father owned the Appledore House hotel on the Isles of Shoals in Maine. She lived there, and it was a destination favored by many key figures in the cultural life of late-19th century New England. Writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow all visited the hotel. Hassam taught Celia Thaxter to paint, and he included the hotel's gardens and the island's shores as subject matter in many of his paintings.

After marrying Kathleen Maude Doane in February 1884, Hassam moved into a South End, Boston, apartment with her, and his painting began to focus on city scenes. "Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston" was one of the most prominent works created shortly after the wedding.

Childe Hassam a rainy day in boston
"Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston" (1885). VCG Wilson / Getty Images

While there is no indication that Hassam saw Gustave Caillebotte's "Paris Street, Rainy Day" before painting his piece, the two works are almost uncannily similar. One difference is that the Boston painting is devoid of any of the political symbolism many observers found in Caillebotte's masterpiece. "Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston" quickly became one of Hassam's favorite paintings, and he sent it to be shown a the 1886 Society of American Artists exhibition in New York.

Embrace of Impressionism

In 1886, Hassam and his wife left Boston for Paris, France. They stayed there for three years while he studied art at the Academie Julian. While in Paris, he painted extensively. The city and gardens were the primary subject matter. Shipment of the completed paintings back to Boston to sell helped finance the couple's Parisian lifestyle.

While in Paris, Hassam viewed French impressionist paintings in exhibitions and museums. However, he did not meet any of the artists. The exposure prompted a shift in the colors and brushstrokes Hassam used. His style became lighter with softer colors. Friends and associates back home in Boston noticed the changes and approved of the developments.

Hassam returned to the United States in 1889 and decided to move to New York City. With Kathleen, he moved into a studio apartment at 17th Street and Fifth Avenue. He created city scenes in all kinds of weather, from winter to the height of summer. Despite the evolution of European impressionism into post-impressionism and fauvism, Hassam firmly stuck to his newly-adopted impressionist techniques.

Fellow American impressionist painters J.Alden Weir and John Henry Twachtman soon became friends and colleagues. Through Theodore Robinson, the trio developed a friendship with French impressionist Claude Monet.

Childe Hassam poppies isles of shoals
"Poppies, Isles of Shoals" (1891). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In the mid-1890s, Childe Hassam began traveling during the summer to paint landscapes in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Old Lyme, Connecticut, and other locations. After a trip to Havana, Cuba, in 1896, Hassam held his first one-person auction show in New York at the American Art Galleries and featured over 200 paintings from throughout his career. Unfortunately, the paintings sold for less than $50 on average per picture. Frustrated by the impact of the 1896 economic slump in the U.S., Hassam returned to Europe.

After traveling to England, France, and Italy, Hassam returned to New York in 1897. There, he helped fellow impressionists secede from the Society of American Artists and form their own group called The Ten. Despite disapproval from the traditional art community, The Ten soon found success with the public. They functioned as a successful exhibition group for the next 20 years.

Later Career

By the end of the first decade of a new century, Childe Hassam was one of the most commercially successful artists in the United States. He earned as much as $6,000 per painting, and he was a spectacularly prolific artist. By the end of his career, he produced over 3,000 works.

Childe and Kathleen Hassam returned to Europe in 1910. They found the city even more vibrant than before. More paintings emerged depicting bustling Parisian life and Bastille Day celebrations.

Upon returning to New York, Hassam began creating what he called "window" paintings. They were one of his most popular series and usually featured a female model in a kimono near a lightly-curtained or open window. Many of the window pieces were sold to museums.

By the time Hassam participated in 1913's Armory Show in New York City, his impressionist style was mainstream art. The cutting edge was far beyond impressionism with cubist experiments and the first rumblings of expressionist art.

Childe Hassam end of the trolley line oak park illinois
"End of the Trolley Line, Oak Park, Illinois" (1893). Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Flag Series

Perhaps the most popular and well-known series of paintings by Childe Hassam was created very late in his career. Inspired by a parade supporting preparations for U.S. participation in World War I, Hassam painted a scene with patriotic flags as the most prominent element. Soon, he had an extensive collection of flag paintings.

Childe Hassam allies day
"Allies Day, May 1917" (1917). VCG Wilson / Getty Images

Hassam hoped that the entire flag series would ultimately be sold for $100,000 as a war memorial set, but most of the works were eventually sold individually. Flag paintings found their way into the White House, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art.

In 1919, Hassam settled in Long Island. It is the subject of many of his final paintings. A boom in art prices in the 1920s made Hassam a wealthy man. Until the end of his life, he fiercely defended impressionism against critics who saw the style as old-fashioned. Childe Hassam died in 1935 at age 75.

Legacy

Childe Hassam was a pioneer in popularizing impressionism in the United States. He also broke ground demonstrating how to turn art into a massively profitable commercial product. His style and approach to the business of art were distinctly American.

Despite the pioneering spirit of his early career, Childe Hassam frequently spoke out against modern developments late in life. He saw impressionism as the pinnacle of artistic development and movements such as cubism were distractions.

Childe Hassam winter in union square
"Winter in Union Square" (1890). Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Sources

  • Hiesinger, Ulrich W. Childe Hassam: American Impressionist. Prestel Pub, 1999.
  • Weinberg, H. Barbara. Childe Hassam, American Impressionist. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.