A disastrous fire in November 1872 wiped out much of Boston's commercial district including his father's business. To help out the family, Hassam dropped out of high school and his father lined up a job for him in the accounting department of publisher Little Brown & Company. His poor aptitude for figures, however, convinced his father to allow him to pursue an art career, and Hassam found employment with George Johnson, a wood engraver. He quickly proved an adept draftsman ("draughtsman" in the Boston directory) and he produced designs for commercial engravings, such as images for letterheads and newspapers. Around 1879, Hassam began creating his earliest oil paintings but his preferred medium was watercolors, mostly outdoor studies.
By 1882, Hassam was exhibiting publicly and had his first solo exhibition, of watercolors, at the Williams and Everett Gallery in Boston. The following year, his friend Celia Thaxter convinced him to drop his first name and thereafter he was known simply as "Childe Hassam". He also began to add a crescent symbol in front of his signature, whose meaning is not known.
Having had relatively little formal art training, Hassam was advised by his friend (and fellow Boston Art Club member) Edmund H. Garrett to take a "study trip" with him to Europe during the summer of 1883. Hassam and Garrett traveled through out Great Britain, The Netherlands, France, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, studying the old masters together and creating watercolors of the European countryside. He was particularly impressed with the watercolors of J. M. W. Turner. Sixty-seven of the watercolors Hassam did on his trip formed the basis of his second exhibition in 1884. Hassam married Kathleen Doan after his return.
After returning to Boston, Hassam resumed his studio illustration and in good weather produced landscapes out-of-doors. He also joined the "Paint and Clay Club", expanding his contacts in the art community, which included prominent critics and "the readiest and smartest of our younger generation of artists, illustrators, sculptors, and decorators-the nearest thing to Bohemia that Boston can boast." Friends found him to be energetic, robust, outgoing, and unassuming, capable of self-mockery and considerate acts, but he could be argumentative and wickedly witty against the art community who opposed him. Hassam was particularly influenced by the circle of William Morris Hunt, who like the great French landscapist Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, emphasized the Barbizon tradition of working directly from nature. He absorbed their credo that "Atmosphere and light are the great things to work for in landscape painting." In 1885, a noted critic stated, in part responding to Hassam's early oil painting A Back Road (1884), "the Boston taste for landscape painting, founded on this sound French school, is the one vital, positive, productive, and distinctive tendency among our artists today...the truth is poetry enough for these radicals of the new school. It is a healthy, manly muscular kind of art."
By the mid-1880's, Hassam began painting cityscapes in nearby locales, his Boston Common at Twilight (1885) being one of his first. He joined a few other progressive American artists who were taking to heart the advice of French academic master Jean-Leon Gerome, who had a conversion from his traditional subject matter and told his American peers, "Look around you and paint what you see. Forget the Beaux-Arts and the models and render the intense life which surrounds you and be assured that the Brooklyn Bridge is worth the Colosseum of Rome and that modern America is as fine as the bric-a-brac of antiquity." However, one Boston critics firmly rejected his urban choice of subject as "very pleasant, but not art." Although he had shown steady improvement in his oil painting, before letting go of illustration Hassam decided to return to Paris with his wife. Through out their life together, she ran the household, arranged travel, and attended to other domestic tasks, but little is known about their private life. Hassam's success with illustration was sufficient to allow the couple to find a well-located apartment/studio with a maid near Place Pigalle, the center of the Parisian art community. With the exception of fellow American artist Frank Boggs, the couple lived among the French and socialized little with other American artists studying abroad.
Hassam took classes in figure drawing and painting at the Academie Julian. Although he took advantage of the formal drawing classes with Gustave Boulanger and Jules Joseph Lefebvre, he quickly moved on to his own self-study, finding that "The Julian academy is the personification of routine... [academic training] crushes all originality out of growing men. It tends to put them in a rut and it keeps them in it", preferring instead, "my own method in the same degree." His first Parisian works were street scenes, employing a mostly brown palette, and he sent these works back to Boston for sale, which combined with older watercolors provided the couple with sufficient income to sustain their stay abroad.
In the autumn of 1887, Hassam painted two versions of Grand Prix Day, employing a breakthrough change of palette. Suddenly, he was laying softer, more diffuse colors to canvas, similar to the French Impressionists, creating scenes full of light, done with freer brush strokes. It is likely that he was inspired from French Impressionist paintings he had viewed in museums and exhibitions, though he did not meet any of these artists.
The sudden shift expanded his options and his range. Through the 1890's, his technique veered increasingly toward Impressionism in both oil and watercolor, even as the movement itself was giving way to Post-Impressionism and Fauvism. During his European stay, he continued to favor street and horse scenes, avoiding some of the other favorite depictions of the Impressionists, such as opera, cabaret, theater, and boating. He also painted garden and "flower girl" scenes, some featuring his wife, including Geraniums (1888) which he presented at the Salon exhibition that year. He managed to exhibit at all three Salon shows during his Paris stay but won no medals.
The work he sent home was attracting attention too, as one reviewer commented, "It is refreshing to note that Mr. Hassam, in the midst of so many good, bad, and indifferent art currents, seems to be paddling his own canoe with a good deal of independence and method. When his Boston pictures of three years ago are compared with the more recent work it may be seen how he has progressed." Hassam contributed four paintings to the Exposition Universale of 1889 in Paris, winning a bronze medal. At that time, he remarked on the emergence of progressive American artists who studied abroad but who did not succumb to French traditions:
As for the French Impressionists, he wrote "Even Claude Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and the school of extreme Impressionists do some things that are charming and that will live." Later, he would be called an "extreme Impressionist" himself. His only "direct" contact with a French Impressionist artist was when Hassam took over Renoir's former studio and found some of the painter's oil sketches left behind, "I did not know anything about Renoir or care anything about Renoir. I looked at these experiments in pure color and saw it was what I was trying to do myself."
He became close friends with fellow Impressionist artists J. Alden Weir and John Henry Twachtman, whom he met through the American Water Color Society, and over the following months he made many connections in the art community through other art societies and social clubs. In several exhibitions and shows, he contributed work he had painted in Europe. Hassam enthusiastically painted the genteel urban atmosphere of New York that he encountered within walking distance of his apartment, and avoided the squalor of the lower-class neighborhoods. He proclaimed that "New York is the most beautiful city in the world. There is no boulevard in all Paris that compares to our own Fifth Avenue the average American still fails to appreciate the beauty of his own country." He captured well-dressed men in bowler hats and top hats, fashionable women and children out and about, and horse-drawn cabs slowly making their way along crowded thoroughfares lined by commercial buildings (which were generally less than six stories high at that time). For Hassam, his primary focus would forever continue to be "humanity in motion". He never doubted his own artistic development and his subjects, remaining confident in his instinctual choices throughout his life.
It was through Theodore Robinson, who was working alternatively in America and France, that he, Twachtman, and Weir kept in close touch with Monet who was residing in Giverny at the time. The four Americans represented the core of American Impressionism, dedicated to painting what was real for them, what was familiar and close at hand, out-of-doors when possible, and with the immediacy of light and shadow-which though exaggerated and falsely colored at times-makes a purposeful impact or impression. The urban scene provided its own unique atmosphere and light, one which Hassam found "capable of the most astounding effects" and as picturesque as any seaside scene. The challenge for the urban Impressionist, however, was that activity moved very quickly, and therefore, getting down a complete impression in oil was next to impossible. To adapt to this, Hassam would find a suitable location, make sketches of the components of his planned painting, then return to the studio to construct a total impression which was in actuality a composite of smaller scenes.
During the summers, he would work in a more typical Impressionist location, such as Appledore Island, the largest of the Isles of Shoals off New Hampshire, then famous for its artist's colony. Social life on the island revolved around the salon of poetess Celia Thaxter. The group was a "jolly, refined, interesting and artistic set of people like one large family." There Hassam recalled, "I spent some of my pleasantest summers (and) where I met the best people in the country." Hassam's subjects for his paintings included Thaxter's flower garden, the rocky landscape, and some interior scenes rendered with his most impressionistic brush strokes to date. In Impressionist fashion, he applied his colors "perfectly clear out of the tube" to unprimed canvas without pre-mixing. Artists displayed their work in her salon and were exposed to wealthy buyers staying on the island. Thaxter died in 1894, and in tribute Hassam painted her parlor in The Room of Flowers.
Starting in the mid-1890's, Hassam also made summer painting excursions to Gloucester, Massachusetts; Cos Cob, Connecticut; and Old Lyme, Connecticut; all of them by the sea but each presenting unique aspects for painting. Even though his sales were good, Hassam continued to take on commercial work, including for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. After a trip to Havana, Cuba, Hassam returned to New York and had his first major one-man auction show at the American Art Galleries in 1896, featuring over two hundred works, spanning his entire career to date. The New York Times observed that of the "steadily increasing band of impressionists, Mr. Hassam is a priest high in the councils." Most critics were convinced that he had taken Impressionism too far, one stating that "his key of color has been rising higher and higher until it simply screeches. His impression has been growing more and more bleary-eyed." Another critic declared, "He ignores the public that dearly loves a picture." What proved true were the low prices buyers were willing to pay. Hassam realized less than $50 per picture at auction. Other American artists were also having a difficult time, during the general economic slump of 1896, and Hassam decided to leave the depressing scene behind and he returned to Europe.
Back in New York in 1897, Hassam took part in the secession of Impressionists from the Society of American Artists, forming a new society known as The Ten. The group was energized if not initiated by Hassam, who was among the most radical of members. Their first show at the Durand-Ruel Gallery featured seven of his new European works. Critics dismissed his new work as "experimental" and "quite incomprehensible". Though still interested in including figures in his urban paintings, his new summer works done at Gloucester Harbor, Newport, Old Lyme, and other New England locales show increasing attention to pure landscapes and buildings. As his colors became paler and closer in tone to Monet's, which many viewers found unsettling and unfathomable, he was asked how he came up with a particular palette, and he responded unmysteriously, "subjects suggest to me a color scheme and I just paint."
Hassam was astute in marketing his work, and was represented by dealers and museums in several cities and abroad; so despite the negative critics and the conservative buyers, he did manage to keep selling and painting without having to resort to teaching in order to survive financially. A colleague described Hassam as an artist "with a keen knowledge of distribution, the tactical ability to place his work." As the new century began, some three decades after the Impressionists first exhibitions in France, Impressionism finally gained a legitimacy in the American art community, and Hassam began to sell to major museums and receive jury awards and medals, vindicating his belief in his vision. In 1906, he was elected Academician of the National Academy of Design.
After a brief period of depression and drinking as part of an apparent mid-life crisis, the forty-five year old Hassam then committed himself to a healthier life style, including swimming. During this time he felt a spiritual and artistic rejuvenation and he painted some Neo-Classical subjects, including nudes in outdoor settings. His urban subjects began to diminish and he confessed that he was tiring of city life-as bustling subways, elevated trains, and motor buses supplanted the graciousness of the horse-drawn scenes he was so fond of capturing in earlier times. The architecture of the city changed as well. Stately mansions gave way to skyscrapers, which he admitted had its own artistic appeal, "One must grant of course that if taken individually a skyscraper is not much of a marvel of art as a wildly formed architectural freak. It is when taken in groups with their zig zag outlines towering against the sky and melting tenderly into the distance that the skyscrapers are truly beautiful." Hassam urban paintings now take on a higher perspective and humans shrink in size accordingly, as illustrated in Lower Manhattan (1907). He began to spend only his winters in New York and traveled the balance of the year, calling himself "the Marco Polo of the painters." In 1904 and 1908, he traveled to Oregon and was stimulated by new subjects and diverse views, frequently working out-of-doors with fellow artist C. E. S. Wood. He produced over 100 paintings, pastels, and watercolors of the High Desert, the rugged coast, the Cascades, scenes of Portland, even nudes in idealized landscapes (a series of bathers comparable to those of Symbolist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes). As was his normal method, he adapted his style and colors to the subject at hand and the mood of place, but always in the Impressionist vein.
The Hassams returned to Europe in 1910 to find Paris much changed, "The town is all torn up like New York. Much building going on. They out American the Americans!" In the midst of the vibrant city, Hassam painted July Fourteenth, Rue Daunou during the Bastille Day celebrations, a forerunner of his famous Flag series (see below).
When he came back to New York, Hassam began a series of "window" paintings which he continued until the 1920's, usually featuring a contemplative female model in a flowered kimono before a light-filled curtained or open window, as in The Goldfish Window (1916). The scenes were popular with museums and quickly snapped up. Hassam was especially prolific and energetic in the 1910-1920 period causing one critic to comment, "Think of the appalling number of Hassam pictures there will be in the world by the time the man is seventy years old!" In reality, Hassam did produce thousands of works in nearly every medium during his life. Where his friend Weir might paint six canvases in a season, Hassam would do forty.
During that period he also returned to watercolors and oils of coastal scenes, as exemplified by The South Ledges, Appledore (1913), which employs an unusually balanced division of sea and rocks diagonally across a nearly square canvas, giving equal weight to sea and land, water and rock. He also produced some still-life paintings.
Hassam had six paintings on display at the famous Armory Show of 1913, where Impressionism was finally viewed as mainstream and nearly an historical style, and displaced by the clamor over the radical revolution of Cubism, fresh from Europe. He and Weir were the oldest exhibitors, nicknamed at a press dinner as "the mammoth and the mastodon of American Art". Hassam viewed the new art trends from abroad with alarm, stating "this is the age of quacks, and quackery, and New York City is their objective point." He was also displeased that the Armory Show took away attention from the latest exhibits of The Ten.
In 1913, Hassam was honored with a separate gallery showing at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition featuring thirty-eight pictures. Around 1915, he renewed his interest in etching and lithography, producing more than 400 of these works during his later career; but while artistically satisfying, they achieved only so-so public acceptance, as he commented, "some sell and some of the best do not."
The Flag series
Being a avid Francophile, of English ancestry, and strongly anti-Germany, Hassam enthusiastically backed the Allied cause and the protection of French culture. The Hassams joined with other artists in the war relief effort from nearly the beginning of the conflict in 1914, when most Americans as well as President Woodrow Wilson were decidedly isolationist. He even had in mind to volunteer to go to Europe to record the war, but the government would not approve the trip. He was even arrested (and quickly released) for innocently sketching naval maneuvers along the city's rivers. As well as the time he gave to many committees, several of the flag pictures were contributed to the war relief, and he accepted Liberty Bonds in payment for one. Although he had great hopes that the entire series would sell as a war memorial set (for $100,000), the pictures were sold individually after several group exhibitions, the last at the Corcoran Gallery in 1922.
Monet, among other French artists, had also painted flag-themed works, but Hassam's have a distinctly American character, displayed on New York's most fashionable street with his own compositional style and artistic vision. In most paintings in the series, the flags dominate the foreground, while in others the flags are simply part of the festive panorama. In some, the American flags wave alone and in others, flags of the Allies flutter as well. In his most impressionistic painting in the series, The Avenue in the Rain (1917), the flags and their reflections are blurred so extremely as to appear to be viewed through a rain-smeared window. His flag paintings cover all seasons and various weather and light conditions. Hassam makes a patriotic statement without overt reference to parades, soldiers, or war, apart for one picture showing a flag exclaiming "Buy Liberty Bonds". The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Historical Society, and the National Gallery of Art all own a Hassam flag painting.
In 1919, Hassam purchased a home in East Hampton, New York. Many of his late paintings employed nearby subjects in that town and on Long Island. The post-war art market boomed in the 1920's, and Hassam commanded escalating prices, though some critics thought he had became static and repetitive, as American art had begun to move on to the Realism of the Ashcan School and artists like Edward Hopper and Robert Henri. In 1920, he received the Gold Medal of Honor for lifetime achievement from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and numerous other awards through the 1920's. Hassam traveled relatively little in his last years, but did visit California, Arizona, Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico. He died in East Hampton in 1935, at age 75.
To the end, he denounced modern trends in art, and he termed "art boobys" all the painters, critics, collectors, and dealers who got on the bandwagon and promoted Cubism, Surrealism and other avant-garde movements." From his death until a revival of interest in American Impressionism in the 1960's, Hassam was considered among the "abandoned geniuses". As French Impressionist paintings reached stratospheric prices in the 1970's, Hassam and other American Impressionists gained renewed interest and were bid up as well.