- Childe Hassam: American ImpressionistBy Ulrich W. Hiesinger
- Childe Hassam: American ImpressionistBy H. Barbara Weinberg
Important Art by Childe Hassam
A Back Road most significantly reveals the influence of the Barbizon School painters on Hassam. The expansive, agricultural landscape (suggested by the haystack in the distance), wagon, and cloud-filled sky all recall the rural farm scenes of these midcentury French painters, whose work Hassam would have seen on his first trip to Europe in 1883. In Hassam's painting, the sense of stillness and the heat of summer are coupled with an acknowledgment of the vastness of nature that dwarfs the human scale. But unlike the Realist paintings of the Barbizon School, whose content focused on the downtrodden, hand-to-mouth agricultural existence of the French peasantry, Hassam's painting of a solitary laborer driving down a dirt path celebrates the American farming tradition and the lush foliage of the countryside. Here the irregular, winding trail, partly encroached upon by patches of grass, suggest both the power of nature and the struggle of man to carve out his place within it.
One of the last paintings that Hassam completed before leaving America in 1886 for three years in France, this work depicts an intersection near the artist's apartment in Boston's South End during the titular weather. But the importance of the work lies in Hassam's ability to explore simultaneously the literal intersection of his numerous artistic interests. Hassam had taken a brief trip to Europe in 1883, including Paris, where he had seen works by the French Impressionists, and Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue also suggests Hassam's shared preoccupation with several of their themes, principally the interplay of light, weather, bodies, and surfaces, and their combined effect upon the naked eye's perception under such conditions. The wide angle of the scene also suggests Hassam's interest, like his French counterparts, in photography, and perhaps particularly stereo-views or panoramas created by multiple photographs joined together in series.
Although Hassam probably did not see Gustave Caillebotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) specifically when he had visited France, it is virtually impossible not to compare the two works. Along with identical weather conditions, the paintings' scenes use strikingly similar architectural settings, with three primary rows of buildings receding into the distance, creating a dramatic, two-point perspectival system that moves the viewer's eye horizontally across the frame. Unlike Caillebotte's work, however, which is charged with complex symbolic overtones about the fragmentation of modern French society in the aftermath of Haussmann's transformation of Paris and the traumatic Franco-Prussian War, Hassam's work remains nearly empty of political undertones. In Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue Hassam creates an implicit comparison between Boston and Paris: the former as the city that nurtured his early career, and the latter where he would transition into a mature artist. Not surprisingly, Hassam liked this work so much that he selected it to be shown at the highly-regarded Society of American Artists exhibition in New York in 1886.
This painting depicts a busy tree-lined street in Paris filled with horse-drawn carriages traveling in both directions, one of two identically-titled canvases capturing the parades that occurred in Paris to mark the beginning of the annual horse racing season. Its importance is revealed by Hassam's ability here to immediately synthesize the artistic developments then taking place in Paris. Much of the work is painted in loose brushstrokes like Impressionist works, but it is also evident that Hassam appreciated the pointillist works that Georges Seurat and Vincent van Gogh were beginning to exhibit upon the dissolution of the Impressionist circle. This nod to Seurat's work can be seen here in the sky and in the trees, where Hassam has juxtaposed small, nearly dot-like flecks of varied tones of color, thus creating more luminant regions that almost seem to glow. Much like this work represents a transitional phase in Hassam's career, between his period in Boston and later work in New York, it also serves as a documentation of the transition in avant-garde art at a precise moment, as well as the considerable artistic exchange of the era between Europe and North America, of which Hassam's work played a major part.