Progression of Art
A Back Road
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.
Oil on canvas - Brooklyn Museum, New York
Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston
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.
Oil on canvas - Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio
Grand Prix Day [Le Jour de Grand Prix]
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.
Oil on canvas - New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut
Poppies, Isles of Shoals
Poppies, Isles of Shoals is characteristic of the many landscapes that Hassam painted when on vacation from New York - from the 1890s onwards. The Isles, off the Atlantic coast of Maine and New Hampshire, were a favorite spot for him as well as several other New England writers and cultural figures at the end of the 19th century, including William Morris Hunt. It was there that he formed a friendship with the poet and critic Celia Thaxter, whose gardens, along with the nearby shores and ocean, greatly intrigued Hassam.
Hassam's landscapes, seascapes, and still lifes, such as Poppies, illustrate well his ability to depict the effects of light and the intensity of color of the features of the land and sea, often packaged together in a harmonious ensemble. Here, he divides the canvas into three zones of nearly equal size: a band of the red and pink titular flowers in full bloom occupies the bottom third, while the island's rocky shores extend into the ocean in the middle, followed by the pale, sun-bleached sky at the top. The balance of the painting underscores the unchanging stillness of the scene, with little movement detectable; the viewer likely imagines sounds here such as the gentle lapping of waters among the rocks and perhaps a cry or two from invisible seagulls.
The pastoral quality of the scene provides a counterpoint to the bustling urban works that Hassam was churning out at a frenzied pace in New York. Poppies and its related landscapes thus represent an antidote to the hurried, crowded pace of modern life that increasingly characterized city-life-America at the turn of the century. Hassam seems to have stopped time at an ideal moment where the sun perfectly illuminates the hues of the flowers and shoreline, thus preserving them for posterity. Poppies thus serves as a reminder that America still guarded some unspoiled, tangible parcels of nature despite the massive, confusing energy of industrialization that was fast transforming its society.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Winter in Union Square
Winter in Union Square encapsulates Hassam's mature style of cityscapes after he returned to America from Europe in 1889. He quickly drew inspiration from the scenes of modern life as captured by the activity on the streets of New York, principally where he had settled around Union Square in lower Manhattan, which was quickly becoming the center of the city's commercial and cultural life. Hassam became engrossed in people-watching, and his paintings of New York from the turn of the century reveal his fascination with the movement of people through the urban environment. This painting is one of the first of many where Hassam chose an elevated vantage point for such a view, a strategy that both increases the drama of the scene and hints at the painter's power over his depiction of the environment.
Hassam became famous for his many depictions of this hub of human activity in the winter, when the inclement weather often created fascinating effects of light and texture. The loose brushstrokes that characterize Hassam's Impressionistic style illustrate this preoccupation well, suggesting the bustling struggle of New Yorkers negotiating their way through the snow on trolleys, in cabs, and on foot. At the same time, Hassam asks the viewer to consider the particular atmospheric effects on the perception of the trees, sky, and the architecture. Significantly, Hassam captures the ultimate symbol of modernity - the dome of the Domestic Sewing Machine Company's building, then New York's tallest - piercing the sky, as if documenting the collision between the accomplishments of man and the raw forces of nature that shroud and batter it.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Allies Day, May 1917
Hassam is well-known for his series of nearly thirty paintings completed between 1916 and 1919 depicting both the American flag and those of her World War I allies on display on the streets of New York City, particularly on Fifth Avenue. He painted them both to raise money for the war effort and to instill a sense of patriotism and solidarity among Americans. Many of them, such as Allies Day, are painted from Hassam's preferred elevated vantage point along the street, juxtaposing the colorful banners waving in the breeze with the staid, gray verticals of the architecture, forms often used by Hassam to represent an American character and identity. The decking of these structures with flags suggests the depths of American commitment to the Allied cause, akin to the notion of wrapping oneself in a national flag.
Like many of his other works, the flag series, including Allies Day, derives from several French models of public flag displays on festival days, such as Monet's Rue Montorgeuil, Fête de 30 juin 1878 (1878). But the flag paintings also represent a deeply personal strain of Hassam's Impressionism; each of the nations (with the exception of Canada, whose flag in the foreground contains the British flag on a red ensign) played a significant role in his life. A proud American, he was a noted Anglophile and received much of his artistic training in France. It is not surprising, then, that Hassam scoffed with disdain when he failed to find a buyer for the series as a whole in 1919 and realized the collection would be dispersed.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.