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Childe Hassam

Born: 1859, Dorchester, Massachusetts, United States of America
Died: 1935, East Hampton, New York, United States of America
Gender: Male


Childe Hassam forged a genteel, visually sensuous, and distinctly American interpretation of impressionism, the application of broken brushwork, bright color, and brilliant light effects to the portrayal of contemporary subjects. Hassam was born into an old New England family in Dorchester, near Boston, Massachusetts, but was forced to leave high school when his father's cutlery business failed. Hassam apprenticed to a Boston wood engraver, worked as an illustrator, and studied art at Boston's Lowell Institute and the Boston Art Club before launching his career in 1882 with a small solo exhibition of watercolors. The following year, the young artist met Celia Thaxter, poet and art patron, who became an important inspiration to him, and he worked for the first time on the Isle of Shoals, off the New Hampshire coast, where Thaxter summered; he also made the first of several extended visits to Europe, where he traveled widely.

With his Boston cityscapes of the 1880s Hassam pioneered the artistic portrayal of the modern American city. These early views, which softened urban realities through the use of snow, twilight, and rainy-day effects, were tonalist works that emphasized light and dark values through a muted palette organized around a single shade. However, while in Paris between 1886 and 1889, when he studied at the Académie Julian, Hassam came under the influence of French impressionist artists, notably Claude Monet (1840–1926), and began to paint with short, emphatic strokes of paint in bright, light-saturated colors. Often described by his contemporaries as the American Monet, Hassam disavowed the French painter's influence and cited instead his admiration for Dutch and English masters, such as the romantic English artist James M. W. Turner (1775–1851).

On his return to the United States in 1889, Hassam took up residence in New York and soon became an indispensable fixture on the national art scene. In his paintings of the energetic growing city, Hassam pushed the bounds of acceptable urban subject matter but sidestepped direct confrontation with the social issues implicit in the mix of urban people he portrayed. He also began to paint in New England sites of leisure resort, notably the Isle of Shoals and Gloucester, Massachusetts, and traveled to paint in Cuba, California, and the American South as well as Europe; beginning in 1903, Hassam also regularly worked in Cos Cob, on the Connecticut shore, site of an important colony of impressionist painters. In such locales, his impressionist technique reached its full development in oil paintings and watercolors of brilliant sunlight flooding the shoreline, penetrating into genteel colonial interiors, and brightening the facades of historic churches. He also painted figures in interiors and out-of-doors and executed fanciful images of idealized female nudes in summer landscapes. Hassam revived his earlier preoccupation with urban subjects, particularly, beginning in 1916, in his so-called "flag series" of vertical images of New York streets draped in patriotic bunting.

Both critically and financially, the prolific Hassam was one of his generation's most consistently successful artists. His widely exhibited paintings won numerous prizes; he was also in demand as an illustrator and printmaker. He served on countless art juries and belonged to numerous clubs and societies. He was a founder of the New York Water Color Club in 1890, and in 1897 he spearheaded formation of Ten American Painters, an organization of impressionist artists that broke away from the more conventional Society of American Artists. Hassam lived to see his genteel impressionism eclipsed by new artistic modes, and in his last decades he became an outspoken critic of modernism.

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