Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 5, 2000
Warren Adelson, Jay Cantor, and William Gerdts Childe Hassam, Impressionist Abbeville Press, 1999. 256 pp.; 200 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0789205874)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1881) repeatedly noted in his voluminous journals the wonders of the eye and the extraordinary advances in vision achieved during his lifetime as artist, inventor, and scientist. In 1837 he titled the revelations accorded by a walk with a landscape painter or with a telescope as “New Eyes.” By 1871 he proclaimed five miracles of the age citing the astronomer’s spectroscope and the photograph among them. No wonder in an isolated sentence in his journals Emerson ultimately pronounced, “Our age is ocular.” The alterations Emerson contributed to in the ideas of vision and witnessed in the means of perception only accelerated as the nineteenth century passed into the next. Impressionist painter Childe Hassam (1859-1935) straddled the two “ocular” centuries in which panoramas, dioramas, light shows, magazine illustrations, commercial advertisements and designs, photography, stereography, cinema, and a host of modern “isms” all demanded the eye’s undivided attention. In many ways, the Massachusetts-born artist effected his Concord neighbor’s pronouncements. Perhaps more vigorously than his contemporaries, Hassam’s oils and various works on paper assertively address the eye with bold complementary contrasts, forceful applications of paint, and perpetually active surfaces. Ocular moments repeatedly serve as his subjects in his prodigious output: travels by foot or cab through city streets or parks; single female figures looking out windows, at mirrors, at still life displays, or reading the newspaper; the buying and selling of flowers; sweeping vistas of city monuments, weather effects, poppies framing the sea, and ocean waters colliding against rocks; balcony views of traffic, parades, fairs, flag displays, and stock traders among the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Critic Royal Cortissoz aptly summarized Hassam’s achievement as “the enchantment of sheer nature … of life as it ministers to the pleasure of the eye” (116-17).

How appropriate that Abbeville Press has published an ocular testament to Hassam’s ministry of the eye. Sumptuous color plates grace virtually every page of this large-format book. Even artists offered up for comparison such as Pissarro, Prendergast, Cassatt, and Dewing are treated to color representation. Archival photographs of Hassam, of his contemporaries, or of the sites he painted never distract from or interfere with the primacy of the work of art as visual object. Only four photographs intersperse the text proper, with seven additional images peppering the ample chronology written by Richard H. Finnegan. This approach counters current art historical practice that seeks to construct a contextual framework for the individual work of art. For an artist like Hassam, in which specific environments or events engendered distinct compositions, the absence of site documentation segregates artistic production in a peculiar way. Of course, other recent studies of Hassam have provided abundant contextual photographs and prints, most notably Ilene Susan Fort, The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988), David Park Curry, Childe Hassam: An Island Garden Revisited (New York: Denver Art Museum, in association with W. W. Norton, 1990), and Ulrich W. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam, American Impressionist (New York: Prestel, 1994). The dearth of context in the Abbeville monograph is all the more noticed since each author emphasizes Hassam’s “sense of place” without deeply probing what that meant for the artist or his contemporaries, though Cantor does mention its relationship to a neo-Puritan ideology. Nor do recent theoretical discussions of the notion of place play a role. In this monograph, the painting is all.

Three topical essays by different authors rather than a single, continuous narrative distinguish this Hassam study from previous ones. Without superfluous repetition, these essays examine the range of Hassam’s prolific career. Warren Adelson’s “Childe Hassam: Cosmopolitan and Patriot” weaves a biographical overview with a stylistic survey. Jay Cantor’s energetically written “Beyond Impressionism: Hassam’s Twentieth-Century Work” evaluates the artist’s modernist contributions and deftly incorporates contemporary commentary into his discussion. William Gerdts’s “Three Themes” examines Hassam’s oeuvre in terms of subjects that while distinct, do interconnect profoundly: the city, flowers, and American traditions of church and country. On the whole the essays complement one another, though those by Cantor and Gerdts offer more substantial content. Strangely absent from all three essays is any discussion of who bought the successful artist’s paintings or of how contemporary innovations in the means of perception may have contributed to Hassam’s artistic vision.

Adelson begins the book with his summary of Hassam’s artistic life. However, he repeatedly mars his stylistic profile of Hassam’s art by exaggerating the similarities between the American’s work and that of radical Europeans such as Seurat, Signac, and the Nabis. Frequently, he ignores the marked distinctions found in a careful analysis of Hassam’s various renditions of a subject or of their seeming likeness to specific French Impressionist or Post-Impressionist works. Adelson defines Hassam only in terms of French artistic practice rather than on his own or on American terms.

Cantor offers a needed corrective to Adelson’s facile stylistic comparisons. Contextualizing Hassam’s twentieth-century works within the artist’s nineteenth-century beginnings as a graphic artist and illustrator, Cantor aptly argues for the complex and even contradictory nature of Hassam’s art. He acknowledges that Hassam’s “range and output were so enormous that they obscure a clear reading of his work,” and that ultimately, he “never totally abandoned one manner, but grafted on elements that suited his expressive purposes” (78). This sensibility led Hassam to the startling abstract compositions of his Appledore coast scenes in which the heightened energy of his nervous, even at times muscular, surfaces plays as important a role as his architectonic compositions and complementary colors.

Cantor convincingly situates Hassam in the intellectual world of American Symbolism and its favoring of a genteel aestheticism. He makes this evident not only in Hassam’s paintings but also in his etchings and is the only author to discuss his graphic work with any care. Through his subtle understanding of the shifting aesthetic concerns of American artists in the twentieth century, Cantor redeems Hassam’s nudes in the landscape as a “purposeful primitivism” in which the modern and the traditional disquietly stand together (94). He astutely connects these contradictory aesthetics to Hassam’s broader cultural concerns with American art and the Puritan “New England Way.”

Gerdts, the dean of studies in American Impressionism, presents the lengthiest and most detailed discussion of Hassam’s artistic substance. He carefully analyzes Hassam’s site-specific views of Venice, Boston, Paris, Havana, Rome, New York, and Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in terms of street locations, identifiable monuments, and social dynamics often alluded to by a telling detail. Contemporary commentaries about a particular city site, as well as Hassam’s own vantage points and visual strategies are discussed. Gerdts connects Hassam’s painted views to progressive reforms of the modern city, including electricity, residential restoration, and the institution of sanitation projects like public lavatories and street cleaners. Gerdts rightly presents the window pictures, in which single women sit or stand before a gossamer curtain with flowers and fruit placed nearby, as a transition from city subjects to “a world of flowers.” These juxtapositions of inside versus outside, of the female sphere of decorated domesticity contrasted to the male world of commercial production, underline the theme of tradition governing his art. Indeed, Hassam himself asserted, “the business of the good painter is to carry on tradition …”(88).

Hassam’s engagement with floral imagery began early in his career while residing in the genteel city of Boston. Traveling to Paris in 1886 and staying in France until 1890, however, stimulated Hassam to paint many variations of the female in the garden or park and the flower seller. One wonders if Hassam’s enthusiasm for this subject was sparked by the artist’s first documented visit to Appledore and Celia Thaxter’s garden immediately before he left for France, a fact only really emphasized in the chronology of the book. Of course, the secluded, genteel world of Thaxter’s garden on the Isles of Shoals as painted by Hassam certainly differed from the domain of his city flower vendors. But it is just this type of juxtaposed contrast that characterizes Hassam’s art. As Gerdts perceptively notes, the flower seller stands as a foil to upper-class visitors, and thus serves as the female working-class counterpart to Hassam’s cabmen.

“For God and Country,” the last section of Gerdts’s essay, addresses the essential Americanness of Hassam’s subjects, especially images of the church, whether in Manhattan or in the New England village, and of the patriotic flag displays Americans arranged as the nation entered into World War I. Although Hassam attended Unitarian Sunday school and church as a youth, not much is made of his egalitarian approach in depicting a range of denominations. Nor is Hassam’s interest in the writings of Emerson mentioned (except in passing by Cantor). The therapeutic implications of Hassam’s filiopietistic subject matter and Unitarian background, so eloquently explored in Kathleen Pyne’s scholarship, surprisingly find no voice in this text. Nevertheless, Gerdts ably emphasizes the patriotic spirit and interconnected character of these two series in Hassam’s career. Indeed, Hassam himself connected vision to nationalism when he reminisced about painting “the white New England church tower in its setting preferably of American elms. . . with the color of our glorious American autumn. . . against one of our radiant North American clear blue skies …” (207).

Janice Simon
University of Georgia