Foreign exchange: how American Impressionists were inspired by their French contemporaries

For artists, such as Childe Hassam and Frederick Carl Frieseke, France was at the forefront of Modernism

At the turn of the 20th century, studying art in France was practically an unspoken rule for aspiring Impressionists. This was certainly the case for many American artists, including Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Guy Rose, and Theodore Earl Butler, amongst others. For some, like Hugh Henry Breckenridge, who eventually settled in Philadelphia, a single year in Paris was enough to leave a lifelong impact on the artist’s oeuvre. Boston-Born Childe Hassam resided in Paris between 1886-89 before moving to New York City, while after several years living in the French capital, Michigan native Frederick Carl Frieseke stayed in the country through the remainder of his life.

Despite their various trajectories, each of these Americans firmly established themselves in the canon of Impressionist art history. It is no surprise, therefore, that works by such artists would find a home in one of the greatest American collections to appear on the market. This November at Christie’s, masterpieces by Hassam and Frieseke will join those by Gustave Caillebotte, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh in The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism. ‘Edwin Cox collected the best-of-type examples of every Impressionist painter, American or European,’ says Caroline Seabolt, specialist in the American Art department. ‘The two Hassams represented in the collection illustrate some of Paris’ most exciting years, while the Frieseke is one of the artist’s largest and most important paintings to come to auction. These works capture that special spirit of American and French artists working side by side.’

Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Geraniums, 1888-1889. Oil on canvas. 23¾ x 18 in (60.3 x 45.7 cm). Estimate $2,000,000-3,000,000. Offered in The Cox Collection The Story of Impressionism on at Christies in New York
Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Geraniums, 1888-1889. Oil on canvas. 23¾ x 18 in (60.3 x 45.7 cm). Estimate: $2,000,000-3,000,000. Offered in The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism on at Christie's in New York

Childe Hassam’s themes of gardens and urban life crystallise

In 1886, following a successful career in Boston, Childe Hassam journeyed to Paris with his wife, Maud, where they would remain for three years. While he originally relocated to study at the Académie Julian, he eventually left the school to cultivate a more individualistic, less contrived Impressionist style.

The Hassams spent their summers at the country home of German businessman Ernest Blumenthal and his wife in Villiers-le-Bel, a small town ten miles northeast of Paris in the Val-d’Oise. The Blumenthal’s home at Villiers-le-Bel was a stately villa that was formerly owned by Thomas Couture, a history painter who taught Edouard Manet. Among the artist’s first serious exploration of the garden motif, Geraniums, belongs to a celebrated series of approximately two dozen works that Hassam painted of the Blumenthal’s formal garden at Villiers-le-Bel, which included exotic plants — like geraniums — that were not native to Europe.

‘We should fail to do justice to the artist if we did not call attention at the same time to the delightful effects of sunlight which he skilfully manages in several garden scenes, where the soft breath of summer can almost be felt’

‘While in Boston, Hassam was working in a much darker and more academic style,’ explains Seabolt, adding that the artist was one of many attracted to Paris, the cultural centre for aspiring Impressionists. ‘If you compare a work like Geraniums to one of his earlier pictures, you can see that he has adopted a brighter palette and quicker brushstrokes. Additionally, he’s likely painting en plein air. The painting fully embraces French Impressionism.’

Amongst the most vibrant and enchanting works from the series, Geraniums likely depicts Mrs. Hassam in the garden surrounded by flowers — a theme favoured by the Impressionists.

One contemporary critic wrote of the Villiers-le-Bel series in 1889: ‘We should fail to do justice to the artist if we did not call attention at the same time to the delightful effects of sunlight which he skilfully manages in several garden scenes, where the soft breath of summer can almost be felt.’

Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Le Crépuscule, 1888-1893. Oil on canvas. 49½ x 76 in (125.7 x 193 cm). Estimate $1,500,000-2,500,000. Offered in The Cox Collection The Story of Impressionism on at Christies in New York
Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Le Crépuscule, 1888-1893. Oil on canvas. 49½ x 76 in (125.7 x 193 cm). Estimate: $1,500,000-2,500,000. Offered in The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism on at Christie's in New York

In Le Crépuscule, also dating to Hassam’s time in Paris, the artist portrays his wife again as well as another sitter who is likely her sister, Mrs. Cora H. Cotton. The two stand on the rooftop of the Hassams’ apartment and studio at 35 Boulevard de Rochechouart, their second Parisian dwelling. Coincidentally, Pierre-Auguste Renoir occupied a studio at the same address for approximately a year between 1886 and 1887. Hassam, an admirer of Renoir’s work, later moved within the building to Renoir’s room at the end of 1889.

Le Crépuscule is simultaneously a double-portrait, floral still life, and urban cityscape. The highly celebrated work is amongst the artist’s largest paintings, and was prominently exhibited throughout Hassam’s life. He first submitted the painting to the 1888 Internationalen Kunstausstellung in Munich, Germany, and shortly after to the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, for which his four entries won him a bronze medal.

‘The early “Crepuscule” of Hassam is a reaction to the Gospel of Monet’

In 1930, Le Crépuscule went on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where a critic compared the painting to that of Monet: ‘The early “Crepuscule” of Hassam which is shown at the Museum is a reaction to the Gospel of Monet.’

Frederick Carl Frieseke’s textured take on one of art history’s most storied subjects

One of the leading figures amongst the second generation of American expatriates in France, Frederick Carl Frieseke first studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York before leaving for Paris in 1898 to enroll at the Académie Julian, as Hassam did. Frieseke also studied at the Académie Carmen, James McNeill Whistler’s short-lived school, where Whistler’s passion for Japanese art and decoration left a lasting impression on him.

By 1900, Frieseke was spending summers in Giverny, and after achieving artistic and financial success, he was able to purchase a home there in 1906. He chose American Impressionist Theodore Robinson’s former house next door to Monet’s. Frieseke remained in Giverny for almost two decades, and it was here that he painted The Parrots, an intricate, archetypal example of the artist’s large-scale paintings of women at leisure within and outside their homes. Frieseke’s wife, Sarah, reclines on the couch, and in the foreground their niece, Aileen O’Bryan, leans towards the birdcage.

Frederick Carl Frieseke (1874-1939), The Parrots, 1910. Oil on canvas. 63½ x 51 in (161.5 x 129.5 cm). Estimate $600,000-900,000. Offered in The Cox Collection The Story of Impressionism on at Christies in New York
Frederick Carl Frieseke (1874-1939), The Parrots, 1910. Oil on canvas. 63½ x 51 in (161.5 x 129.5 cm). Estimate: $600,000-900,000. Offered in The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism on at Christie's in New York

The Parrots was exhibited prominently during the artist’s lifetime with venues including the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1910), the Art Institute of Chicago (1910), National Academy of Design, New York (1912), Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1911), and the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh (1911). Composed with casual poses yet sumptuous fabrics, akin to those depicted by Nabi artists, such as Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, The Parrots is arguably one of Frieseke’s most accomplished interior scenes in scale, detail, and colour.

By featuring a pair of blue and green birds, Frieseke continues the storied tradition of the parrot within art history. Parrots have appeared as symbolic figures within paintings since the Middle Ages, as well as in the works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist French artists, Manet and Renoir.

Luminous, magnificently colourful, and captivating, Childe Hassam and Frederick Carl Frieseke’s canvases epitomise Impressionist beauty in its myriad expressions: within the home, in the garden, and amongst bustling city life.