Childe Hassam's images of New York are among the most celebrated examples of American Impressionism. Inspired by the patriotic celebrations held in New York along Fifth Avenue at the onset of World War I, Hassam painted his poignant and famous series of flag works between 1916 and 1919. Flag Day, Fifth Avenue, July 4th 1916 is a dynamic watercolor that relates to Flags, Fourth of July, 1916 (Private Collection), one of about thirty oil paintings he produced of the flag and pagentry subject.
Hassam's interest in flag subjects dates back to his time spent in Paris from 1886 to 1889. Inspired by the flags and banners displayed on Bastille Day in the area where he lived, he explored this theme in both watercolor and oil and perhaps the strongest impetus behind such pictures, both in style and content, was his exposure to the works of the French Impressionists Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Both French artists produced dramatic and festive images of parades that were staged on the wide boulevards of Paris. Using an elevated perspective, these artists created sweeping scenes of celebrations festooned with flags and teeming with people. Artists such as Monet and Pissarro employed in their works series of broken brushstrokes that conveyed the effects of color, light and atmosphere. The lingering influence of the French Impressionist style can be seen in Hassam's flag series and is evident in Flag Day, Fifth Avenue, July 4th 1916.
Recognizing the prominence of New York as an international art center, Hassam returned to the city in 1890 and by the turn of the twentieth century began exploring newer areas of Fifth Avenue in midtown that represented a modern age in New York. Of all the major avenues in New York, Fifth Avenue has historically been the thoroughfare with the greatest significance. There was great visual fanfare and splendor to the patriotic parades that were organized along Fifth Avenue during this period. New York was the financial and cultural center of the nation during World War I. This position of prominence was boldly displayed in the most elaborate and grandest parades of the time in support of the war effort. Though patriotic celebrations were held in various parts of the city, Fifth Avenue, continuing a tradition that dated back to 1860, became the most famous and splendid parade route of this time. The event that inspired Hassam to produce his flag series was the famous Preparedness Parade that took place on May 13, 1916. This parade was the first important public demonstration of the United States' involvement with Europe just prior to the nation's entry into war in April 1917. Spanning from Twenty-third Street to Fifty-eighth Street along Fifth Avenue, the parade lasted almost thirteen hours and was comprised of more than 137,000 civilian marchers. During the war, Hassam's studio was located at the end of the parade route at 130 West Fifty-seventh Street in close proximity to the decorative and inspiring displays of American flags which hung from neighboring buildings. As one critic, Ernest Haskell, concisely stated regarding the artist on the Fifth Avenue subject, "[Fifth Avenue] he has done at various times, and over a long period...The most daring effort was to paint the Flags. No one has ever painted flags before, so now when one thinks of flags, one thinks of Hassam's flag pictures. These pictures were not garish affairs, but were filled with the poetry of patriotism. He made the Flags symbols of his heritage..." ("Introduction," Childe Hassam, New York, 1922, p. viii)
Hassam's fascination with the modern Fifth Avenue finds its most succinct and famous expression in the flag series. In Flag Day, Fifth Avenue, July 4th 1916 there is a spontaneity to Hassam's working of the media that conveys the bustling avenue decorated for the July 4th, Independence day holiday. Punctuating the sides of the skyscrapers is a myriad of American flags. Hassam's limited color choice of primarily red, white and blue keenly echoes the colors of the American flag. The combination of agitated brush stroke, energetic drawing, composition, color and atmospheric effect lend to the artist's dramatic and cavernous perspective down Fifth Avenue. The elevated vantage point of the artist shows looming skyscrapers that dwarf throngs of people below, who are suggested with an economy of detail. Flag Day, Fifth Avenue, July 4th 1916 is a spirited work from one of the most recognized series of paintings of New York by Childe Hassam, and envelops the revered theme of democracy and liberty in American Art. As Dr. William H. Gerdts has noted, "Hassam was already recognized as one of the artists most identified with 'Americanness,' but it was in these works that he was able to give the modern cityscape patriotic and spiritual resonance. This pictorial sequence constitutes one of the greatest achievements of American art." ("Three Themes: For God and Country," Childe Hassam: Impressionist, New York, 1999, p. 222)
We would like to thank the Hassam catalogue raisonné committee for their assistance with cataloguing this work.
This work will be included in Stuart P. Feld and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.