Childe Hassam's stunning watercolor Fifth Avenue, Evening captures a picturesque moment on a wintry, rain drenched sidewalk of lower Fifth Avenue. Hassam, one of the most accomplished American Impressionists, is considered responsible for "introducing an entire generation of Americans to the charm of ordinary city streets." (I. S. Fort, Childe Hassam's New York, San Francisco, California, 1993, p. VI) Hassam's urbanscapes are dreamlike visions of atmosphere and light. These dazzling images of seasonal change embody an indistinct, decorative impression of natural beauty that is formally reminiscent of James McNeill Whistler's celebrated nocturne paintings. The subtle yet evocative array of warm grays with hints of blue and purple contribute to the strong emotive content of the work, reinforcing its elegiac mood. The feathery quality of the brushstrokes and the multitude of colors infusing the gray palette share an affinity with French Impressionist Claude Monet's late water lily pictures from the 1890s. Hassam developed his Impressionist style while living in Paris from 1886 to 1889, moving away from his earlier Tonalist palette to the brightly hued, short brushstrokes of the French Impressionists. Fifth Avenue, Evening is a superb example of Hassam's impressionistic formal style, capturing the ephemeral natural beauty of the scene in a masterful display of vibrant colors and painterly, expressionistic brushstrokes.
The meticulousness with which Hassam conveys the essence of a particular time of day, season, or weather condition exemplifies the influence of French Impressionism on the artist. Hassam often employed weather and atmospheric conditions as a device for evoking a contemplative, peaceful mood: "he used snow to soften sharp edges of buildings and vehicles and suggest the muffling of the sound of the city." (H. B. Weinberg, "Hassam in New York, 1889-1896," Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, New York, 2004, p. 96) The artist possessed superior skill in observing his natural surroundings, effortlessly translating physical conditions into the delicate watercolor medium. Instead of portraying figural subjects as isolated beings, Hassam captured the way in which urban dwellers were transformed by atmosphere and weather. Rain umbrellas and long winter coats conceal anonymous figures as they hurriedly move along cold city streets, shielded from the harsh conditions. Contrastingly, Hassam's figures stroll leisurely in springtime, enjoying the splendor and natural beauty of the city. Regardless of the season, each conveys the constant movement of the metropolis and its residents, showing that even inclement weather is powerless to stop the ebb and flow of the city.
The viewpoint from street level in the present work suggests that Hassam sketched the scene directly from life before completing the final work in his studio. As Ilene Susan Fort explains, "Hassam was reputed to be a rapid street sketcher. When he wanted to be on the level of pedestrians and near to them, he would sketch sitting in a cab." (Childe Hassam's New York, p. VI) In Fifth Avenue, Evening, the impression of the moment is perfectly captured, and the beautiful colors and composition reflect the fleeting, transitory nature of Hassam's working style. Hassam adopted the notion of the artist as a flâneur in the modern city from the French Impressionists. His desire to capture the cosmopolitan sophistication of New York echoes the rivalry that existed between Paris and New York at the turn of the century. Artistic achievement--as well as the overall degree of refinement of the greater urban populace--was a matter of nationalistic pride. Though he adopted the style of French Impressionism, Hassam's scenes of New York are distinctly American. He did not strive to espouse the vogues or customs of Paris, rather he embraced what was quintessentially and unforgettably New York. As Hassam explained, "To me New York is the most wonderful and most beautiful city in the world. No street, no section of Paris or any other city I have seen is equal to New York." (as quoted in "Hassam in New York, 1889-1896," Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, p. 87)
The opulent hotels, grandiose mansions, and stately avenues of New York that have become Hassam's hallmark are imbued with a sense of nationalism and pride. The ethereal beauty of Fifth Avenue, Evening is tinged with nostalgic optimism, represented by the horse-drawn hansom cab with coachmen and the gas street lamps of the 1890s. New York was becoming increasingly urbanized during this time and new buildings were continually changing the visual landscape. These new developments included "impressive new churches, clubhouses, hotels, monuments, and parks; extraordinary mansions built in every historical style; newly formed and re-formed cultural institutions and recreational facilities." ("Hassam in New York, 1889-1896," Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, p. 92) Lower Fifth Avenue was a recurrent theme in Hassam's work from the 1890s, while he resided with his wife on the southeast corner of 17th street and Fifth Avenue. As Ilene Susan Fort explains, "Washington, Union, and Madison squares, and the side streets directly off of lower Fifth Avenue were his earliest subjects, while upper Fifth Avenue to Central Park, 57th Street, the upper West Side, and Central Park itself appear more frequently in his later depictions." (Childe Hassam's New York, p. VII)
Hassam frequently depicted New York's privileged classes at their most fashionable moments: strolling through parks and along streets and festively attired amid the bustle of church-going crowds and familiar society. In Fifth Avenue, Evening, the indistinct figure of the woman walking alone on the street implies the newfound freedom of late nineteenth-century women in the urban realm. This reference to social progress brings to mind Gustave Caillebotte's Impressionist masterpiece Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877, Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois), in which two female figures in the center of the canvas walk unaccompanied. Rising levels of immigration meant that lower Fifth Avenue was becoming increasingly diverse and dominated by commercial enterprises and the lower classes. Nevertheless, "Hassam's painting shows the hoped for regeneration of the neighborhood and offers a harmonious, sunny, optimistic, patriotic image of the new New York, unified despite its complications." ("Hassam in New York, 1889-1896," Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, p. 103) The city provided a plethora of subject matter for Hassam to explore, yet he consistently focused on genteel aspects of urban life, forgoing the unpleasant realities of the lower and immigrant classes. Hassam kept a respectable distance from his refined subjects and avoided any semblance of voyeurism. Whereas French Impressionists infiltrated and explored the private lives of the bourgeoisie, Hassam's "focus on the façade of public life meant that he did not delve beyond what was happening on the pavements of New York. Hassam remained within the boundaries of nineteenth-century etiquette, respecting propriety by keeping a distance and never probing beneath the surface." (Childe Hassam's New York, p. VII) Gilded Age New York was evolving and the genteel lifestyle that Hassam frequently depicted during the 1890s was slowly starting to move uptown. Fifth Avenue, Evening is a delicate and beautiful expression of the prosaic life of fashionable New Yorkers, representing a striking and historically significant aspect of the urban environment.
This watercolor will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.