Executed at the height of his career, Pont-Aven, exemplifies Childe Hassam's maturing style developed while traveling throughout Europe from 1896 to 1897. By this time, he had begun to attain success with his art, as was noted by a critic from The New York Times: "few of our native painters have succeeded in so many directions. Sea, landscape, architecture, flowers, still life, animals and figures...He seems able to paint anything his fancy dictates. He can be as finished, as broad, as impressionist, as colorful as the best of them, and all at will." ("Pictures by Childe Hassam," The New York Times, 2 February 1896, p. 21)
Hassam developed his lightly toned palette during his first visit to France early in his career, a period during which he closely studied and adopted aspects of Impressionist technique to suit his own aesthetic objectives. In 1886 the artist and his wife settled in Paris where they would remain for the next three years. During this time, he was part of a host of American artists in the city seeking to immerse themselves in the art académies, developments in contemporary painting, and ultimately, Impressionism. While in Paris, Hassam's style changed dramatically from that of his early, more tonal work in Boston. He no longer painted drab canvases, having discovered bright light and color and the short brushstrokes of the French Impressionist painters. Although Hassam never visited Giverny nor met Claude Monet, he wrote from Paris to the Boston critic William Howe Downes, "even Claude Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and the school of extreme impressionists do some things that are charming and thus will live." (as quoted in W.H. Gerdts, Childe Hassam: Impressionist, New York, 1999, p. 171)
In the late summer and early autumn of 1897, Hassam went to Pont-Aven, Port-Manech and Le Pouldu on the coast of Finistère in the northwest of France, finding the quaint villages and picturesque views enchanting. Clearly fascinated by the area, Hassam produced over a dozen canvases, leaving six for exhibition in the Salon Nationale des Beaux-Arts of 1898. In Pont-Aven, Hassam captures a delightful vignette of the small Breton village, depicted with stunning color and light. Two women stop to talk with a gentleman as others go about their daily life while a stray dog wanders in the lower right corner. Portraying the figures in the traditional dress of the provincial town, known at the time for its rural values and old-fashioned ways, Hassam imbues the painting with a relaxed, contemporary quality--a salient departure from his earlier Parisian depictions of modern life.
In Pont-Aven, Hassam uses a tapestry of brushwork and a vibrant palette, a style more abstract than he previously painted and demonstrates his developing Impressionist technique. "While in his earlier work details of surface, color, and texture were expressed in naturalistic terms, in the later 1890s they acquired an even greater autonomy as a result of the artist's pursuit of abstract pictorial values. In fact, Hassam came to prefer motifs in nature that inherently favored such patterns of surface, as he consciously strove to narrow the gap between representation and decoration." (U.W. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, New York, 1994, p. 109)
Hassam's high-keyed palette and short brushstrokes are masterfully executed in this work and vary between thick impasto and a thin application of paint. "Apparently intent on finishing as much work as possible, Hassam adjusted his method to a hurried schedule, laying down the pigment in extremely rapid, summary strokes. Hence, the painted surfaces are often quite thin, but, at their best, possess an engaging sense of impulsiveness and a striking immediacy of effect." (Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, p. 109) Through Hassam's dexterous handling of paint, Pont-Aven becomes a brilliant visual display of color and light. With his jewel-like palette, Hassam emphasizes the effect of a sun-filled day. Here Hassam blends rich greens and blues with pastel pinks, pale blues and yellow. Bathing the work with intense sunlight, Hassam does not diffuse the scene but imbues the village with form and texture.
By painting the scene from ground level, rather than from an elevated viewpoint, Hassam gives the work a more intimate feel that emphasizes the closeness of these Breton residents. "Like his fellow American Impressionists, Hassam tended to retain the identity of the subject he painted, instead of dissolving it in an envelope of color in the way of some of the French painters, for example, Claude Monet. In this, he was following a very strong American tradition to particularize and to heighten the reality of the physical world through the painted image." (D.F. Hoopes, Childe Hassam, New York, 1988, p. 9)
Pont-Aven is a superlative example of Hassam's mature paintings and conveys the full vision of the artist's lively Impressionist style. The vitality of the scene is poignantly recorded and he successfully creates an idyllic image that embraces the scene in its most beautiful and picturesque form.
This painting will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.