The success of Childe Hassam's metropolitan views of New York owes much to his love of the vitality of city life and his unique style of composition, color, light and atmosphere. His park scenes in particular suggest pastoral retreats from urban life and offer glimpses of a city viewed with optimism. These new, man-made retreats were created as a much-needed escape for an urban population that was suffering under the burden of rapid industrialization. Hassam's Spring in Central Park illustrates the brilliance of Hassam's Impressionism and extols the beauty and sanctuary of an urban oasis amid the tumult of a changing city.
As the first American artist to gain renown as a painter of urban views, Hassam began his metropolitan experience in Boston. In 1884, he married and moved with his wife, Maude, moved to an apartment near Back Bay. "By moving to Columbus Avenue, Hassam juxtaposed himself to the 'new' Boston...Whether he chose to live on Columbus Avenue because he wished to investigate it pictorially or whether he was moved to paint such urban scenes because he lived there is not known." (W.H. Gerdts, "Three Themes: The City" in Childe Hassam: Impressionist, New York, 1999, p. 129) In any event, Boston's fashionable West End along the Charles River inspired Hassam to begin portraying the expanding city. "These new surroundings inspired a momentous change of direction in Hassam's painting as, for the first time, he began to explore the subject of modern city life." (U.W. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, New York, 1994, p. 21) In The Public Garden (Boston Common) from circa 1885 (private collection, fig. 1), Hassam represents a scene of modern Boston. At the time, the garden was being incorporated into the Boston Public Park system, also known as the Emerald Necklace, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead between 1878 and 1896 as a response to Boston's overcrowding. He presents a view of fashionable men and women strolling along a path, bifurcating lush greens with sprouting red flowers and bushes that separate this refuge from the bustle of trolleys and hansom cabs.
Modern city planning began as the Industrial Revolution threatened the beauty of cities and the health of the people. After Chicago's Exposition of 1893, the momentum for better planning gathered force taking the name of the "City Beautiful" movement. Of course, the goal of city planning was to link roads, transportation, water and parks into a coherent, working and enjoyable city. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., considered the intellectual leader of the American city planning movement, remarked on these fundamentals, "City planning is the attempt to exert a well-considered control on behalf of the people of a city over the development of their physical environment as a whole...It takes account of the influence of street plans and depths of blocks upon the prevailing type of building and thus upon the amount of light and air and privacy in the people's dwellings; of the effect of railroad locations on the distribution of factories and on the congestion of population and character of housing; of the economic interrelation between water-supply lands and park lands; of the social and economic values to be secured by grouping educational and recreational functions which have ordinarily been separated; and of other combinations innumerable." (John Nolen, ed., City Planning: A Series of Papers Presenting the Essential Elements of a City Plan, New York, 1916, pp. 1-18)
Part of this new urban planning included the development of parks as retreats for the city's citizens. "At first there was some resistance to the park movement because of the costs associated with setting aside urban land for public pleasure grounds and because of suspicion that the parks represented an inappropriate luxury. Supporters of the movement pointed up the social, moral, aesthetic, educational, intellectual, health-promoting, and sanitary significance of these urban spaces, which provided an equivalent of country recreation for the growing number of city dwellers." (H.B. Weinberg, D. Bolger, D.P. Curry, American Impressionism and Realism, New York, 1994, p. 140) John M. Carriere wrote in 1910, "Certain sections of every city must of necessity be ugly and forbidding, and such centers are a refuge and a relief. We must then aim at an interesting and attractive and beautiful way of getting from any one important point in the city to the next point of interest, so that in whatever direction we may travel we may find recreation and rest." ('City Improvement from the Artist Standpoint,' Western Architect, vol. 15, April 1910, pp. 40-41)
Hassam's interest in parks and their artistic possibilities, while dating back to his early career in Boston, blossomed during his residence in Paris. 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 Paris seeking to immerse themselves in art, and in Hassam's case to explore the new movement of Impressionism. Hassam moved with the intent of "refining his talent in the larger crucible of contemporary art." (D.F. Hoopes, Childe Hassam, New York, 1982, p. 13) Hassam studied at the Académie Julian though his experience at the school was neither favorable nor beneficial to his art. Hassam wrote, "The Julian Academy is the personification of routine...It is nonsense. It crushes all originality out of the growing men." (as quoted in Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, p. 32) Working independently of the Académie, Hassam learned his most important artistic lessons on his own. During this time Hassam's style exhibited a marked shift away from his earlier more static approach evident from his earlier Bostonian period and absorbed various tenets of Impressionism.
While in Paris, Hassam's style changed dramatically from that of his early work in Boston. He no longer painted in a dark, Tonalist style, having replaced it with bright light and color and the short brushstrokes of the Impressionists. These Parisian works illustrate both Hassam's early interest in the subject of parks as seen in his In the Park, Paris (1889, private collection, fig. 2) and his unique painting techniques, important elements that would mature in his oeuvre. Hassam, however, consistently rejected the classification of Impressionist. Donaldson F. Hoopes writes: "If the search for the equivalent in paint of the light of nature involved borrowing some of the Impressionists' innovations, then he borrowed, but at no time in his career did Hassam subordinate the emotional content of the represented image to a supremacy of color or technique." (Childe Hassam, p. 13)
In an interview with A.E. Ives, Hassam explained his own principals of style: "Art, to me, is the interpretation of the impression which nature makes upon the eye and brain. The word 'impression' as applied to art has been used, and in the general acceptance of the term has become perverted. It really means the only truth because it means going straight to nature for inspiration, and not allowing tradition to dictate your brush, or to put it brown, green or some other colored spectacles between you and nature as it really exists. The true impressionism is realism. So many people do not observe. They take ready-made axioms laid down by others, and walk blindly in a rut without trying to see for themselves." (A.E. Ives, "Talks with Artists: Childe Hassam on Painting Street Scenes," Art Amateur, 27 October 1892, p. 117)
Hassam drew inspiration from the streets and boulevards of Paris and also ventured to the quieter locales of the city's parks for new subjects to paint. There he observed, amid the quiet and manicured landscapes, finely dressed Parisians strolling along the promenades, providing a view into the leisure lives of the upper class. As Hiesinger notes, "Such urban parks, scenic retreats within the city, reflect the greater attention being paid to urban planning on both sides of the Atlantic at this time, and they constituted a relatively new theme in art." (Childe Hassam: Impressionist, p. 173) In the Park, Paris depicts a well-dressed mother and child walking along a park trailed by two white dogs. In the background are carriages belonging to the wealthy citizens of Paris. Hassam's bright palette is evident in the dashes of red flowers and brightly colored carriages in yellow and pink. The grass is still green, but the trees reflect the change of seasons as they become large swaths of gold. The historic buildings of Paris peek out above the tops of the trees in the background, while in the foreground a new sapling is growing with help from a support, juxtaposing the old city of Paris with the new planned city parks. Hassam has further emphasized this juxtaposition by contrasting the bright spring-like colors of the blooming flowers and green grass with the fallen golden leaves onto the street. With broken brushstrokes and use of color and light, In the Park, Paris demonstrates French Impressionism's growing influence on the artist.
Many American artists returned from studying in Europe to a rapidly changing, urban and industrialized country. Painted after his return from Paris, Hassam's Charles River and Beacon Hill (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, circa 1890) and Marlborough Street, Boston (1889, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, fig. 3) are examples of his portrayals of the burgeoning city. In Charles River and Beacon Hill, he has alluded to the changes in city planning by juxtaposing historic Boston and new Boston. His view is along the Charles River, the gold dome of the State House, built in 1798, in the distance and the then new development of houses in Back Bay line the road. Marlborough Street, Boston depicts a Back Bay street filled with carriages and trolleys and bustling with people including two elegantly dressed women strolling along the Common. Hassam has once again illustrated the new urban planning with the lush park at right juxtaposed with a busy city street at left. On Marlborough Street, the new development of houses in Back Bay rise behind the full, yellow trees lining the street.
Recognizing the prominence of New York as an international art center, Hassam relocated to the city in the winter of 1889. The artist first settled into a studio at 95 Fifth Avenue at Seventeenth Street where he was quickly enthralled by the cultural vitality and cosmopolitan airs of the city. His enthusiasm was recounted to an interviewer in 1892: "I believe the thoroughfares of the great French metropolis are not one whit more interesting than the streets of New York. There are days here when the sky and atmosphere are exactly those of Paris, and when the squares and parks are every bit as beautiful in color and grouping." (American Impressionism and Realism, p. 179) Hassam's passion for the city immediately found direct expression in the canvases he produced and critics quickly came to associate the artist with New York. Later in 1895, one critic would hail Hassam as "a brilliant painter, a sort of Watteau of the boulevards, with unlimited spark and gaiety, movement and animation. He suggests a crowd well; he gives you the color of the streets and the tone of the city." (W.H. Howe and G. Torrey, "Childe Hassam," Art Interchange 34, May 1895, p. 133)
Hassam remained at his studio on lower Fifth Avenue for the next two years and then moved in 1892 to the Chelsea Hotel at 222 West 23rd Street where he would reside for about a year. Lower Fifth Avenue had been in earlier years considered very fashionable, but by the time Hassam moved to this area it had transformed into a more commercial district. The city's wealthy had migrated further uptown on Fifth Avenue closer to Central Park. Spanning from about Fiftieth Street to Eightieth Street, this area along the park was commonly referred to as "Millionaires' Row" with the construction throughout the 1870s and 1880s of great mansions and luxury apartment buildings. As one critic noted: "The fashionable life of the metropolis once had its center here [on lower Fifth Avenue], and although the neighborhood still retains much of its old-time character, and nothing of natural beauty seems lacking to make it desirable as a residence, the tide of fashion has receded northward..." (E. Idell Zeisloft, The New Metropolis, New York, 1899, p. 494, as quoted in W.H. Gerdts, Impressionist New York, New York, 1994, p. 46) Hassam explored and painted areas in and around Fifth Avenue, yet his images of public parks compliment and complete the artist's vision of the city as a place of bustle and beauty. Central Park, the most famous of public parks, was the subject for some of the artist's most acclaimed works. Spring in Central Park from 1898 is one such example.
At the turn of the century, Central Park was the grandest and most renowned public park in the nation. Located in the center of Manhattan, it spanned over eight hundred acres of rolling hills, meadows and forests dotted with ponds and lakes and dissected by miles of walking, equestrian and carriage paths. From its completion, its opening in the late 1850s, the park provided a much needed escape for an urban population that was suffering under the burden of rapid industrialization. Central Park achieved emblematic status and came to embody the nation's antidote for the encroaching modern world.
Clearly a continuation of his explorations of park scenes in Paris, Spring in Central Park provided Hassam the subject matter in which he and his fellow Impressionists often explored: leisurely activities of the refined and aristocratic in picturesque settings. Set against the backdrop of the park in the full bloom of spring, Hassam places in the foreground a nurse walking with her two young charges and populates the remainder of the canvas with fashionable men and women and carriages. Hassam has chosen to ignore the buildings of the city, only suggested through the foliage in the background, and focuses on the interior of the park--creating a pure urban pastoral. As a result, Hassam has afforded himself the opportunity to portray the cultivated landscape of the park, emphasized by his balanced composition of curvilinear shapes that are punctuated with strategically placed women and carriages that meander through the park's paths. Through his skillful choice of location and selection of subjects, Hassam successfully captures on canvas an idyllic and quiet moment in New York.
Through a deft handling of composition, brushstroke, color, light and atmosphere, the scene which Hassam portrays in Spring in Central Park moves beyond a visual record of leisurely activities of and is transformed into a serene and tranquil image. Hassam's scene is viewed from ground level, rather than from an elevated viewpoint, giving it a more intimate feel that emphasizes the individuality of the figures and allows Hassam to portray them more distinctively. Hassam employs a steady yet broken brushstroke that infuses the work with a sense of graceful movement indicative of the gait of fashionably dressed women and the sway of the trees in the spring breeze. Warren Adelson describes Hassam's style: "The brushstrokes are applied in deliberate patches that are Neo-Impressionist in techniqueThe figures and forms recall Seurat's patterned schemata, and the application of paint is like the Divisionist brushwork of Signac." ("Cosmopolitan and Patriot" in Childe Hassam: Impressionist, New York, 1999, pp. 48-49) This sophisticated handling of paint combined with a jewel-like palette emphasizes the atmospheric effect of a light-filled day.
In Spring in Central Park, Hassam depicts a bright, warm day composed of rich greens and purples. From this dominant color scheme emerges the contrasted brilliance of reds and pinks of the flowers and yellows of the flowers grasped in the small hands of the children and carriage. Hassam bathes the work with subdued sunlight, an element commonly used by Impressionists to diffuse a scene, which gives form and texture to the figures and landscape. Hassam said of his bright palette, "They [people] have become so used to the molasses and bitumen school, that they think anything else is wrong. The fact is, the sort of atmosphere they like to see in a picture they couldn't breathe for two minutes. I like air that is breathable. They are fond of that rich brown tone in painting. Well, I am not, because it is not true...This blue that I see in the atmosphere is beautiful, because it is one of the conditions of this wonderful nature all about us." (as quoted in A.E. Ives, "Talks with Artists: Childe Hassam on Painting Street Scenes," p. 116)
Ulrich Hiesinger writes of Spring in Central Park: "A culmination of his best work of the 1890s, the picture evinces a near equilibrium of formal discipline and painterly freedom. Its strong sense of place is accompanied by an ideal charm, realized through the quality of color-filled light that permeates and harmonizes every element." (Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, pp. 116-17) Through Hassam's Impressionist gaze, the tranquility and serenity of Central Park is poignantly recorded, and in Spring in Central Park, he creates an iconic image that embraces the innovative urbanism 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.