Childe Hassam's images of New York are among the most important examples of American Impressionism. The success of Hassam's urban works is attributed to his love of observing the vivacity of city life in conjunction with the artist's unique sense of color, light and atmosphere. Nowhere in his oeuvre of urban subject matter is his intrigue, passion and commitment to investigating New York and American Impressionism more poignant than his most famous and important series of flag paintings executed between 1916 and 1919. Inspired by the patriotic celebrations held in New York along Fifth Avenue at the onset of World War I, Hassam completed approximately thirty oils of flag images. Flags, Afternoon on the Avenue, executed in 1917, is one of the most celebrated works from this famed series and illustrates Hassam's foremost achievement in melding not only the hallmarks of American Impressionism, but the patriotism and optimism that pervaded New York and the country during World War I.
Hassam's urban experience began as early as 1885 in the city of Boston where he moved after his marriage to Kathleen Maude Doan the previous year. Exploring Boston's fashionable west end by the Charles River inspired Hassam to begin portraying modern city life. Between 1886 and 1889, Hassam lived in Paris where his continued interest in urban life focused on the famous bustling boulevards, capturing the comings and goings of the city's elite populace. Recognizing the prominence of New York as an international art center, Hassam returned to the city in 1890. The artist settled into a studio in the popular neighborhood of lower Fifth Avenue where the he was quickly enthralled by the cultural vitality and cosmopolitan aires of the city. Drawing inspiration from his local environs, Hassam recorded the daily activities characteristic of city life. He and his work quickly gained considerable acclaim as one critic hailed him 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). The daily routines of the New York streets that Hassam observed were typically vignettes of the refined upper-middle class, clad in stylish dress and engaged in leisurely activities. Though Hassam paid close attention to the details of street life, he rarely delved beyond these elements and remained respectfully at a distance from the often ugly reality of urban life.
Throughout most of his career, Hassam explored various areas of the city. Though he routinely returned to the surroundings of his home on Fifth Avenue. In 1889 Hassam resided at 95 Fifth Avenue at Seventeenth Street where he documented the streets of what was considered old New York. One writer in 1899 poignantly described Hassam's New York of lower Fifth Avenue: "The fashionable life of the metropolis once had its center here, 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. The big houses that from the avenue's corners are maintained in the same styles as of yore, the grass plots in the front and to the side of them are swept and shaven, the white steps immaculate and the window panes polished." (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)
By the turn of the century, artists began exploring newer areas of Fifth Avenue that represented a modern age New York. Office buildings, skyscrapers, hotels, restaurants and cultural institutions along Fifth Avenue, closer to mid-town, were quickly becoming the central focus. One critic observed this was the "newer Fifth Avenue, which has risen in marble and Indiana limestone from the brownstone and brick of a former age, the Augustan Fifth Avenue which has replaced the old Lincolnian Fifth Avenue." ("Editor's Easy Chair," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. 118, February 1909, p 479, as quoted in Impressionist New York, p. 50) Similarly, Hassam's views of New York by the early twentieth century ventured from the genteel areas of lower Fifth Avenue to areas along the avenue where new and impressive commercial and institutional structures existed. In 1918, a writer observed: "Mr. Hassam migrated further north... but the rains and the snow fall alike upon upper and lower Fifth, and soon Mr. Hassam grew quite at home in his new surroundings, and tackled most of the architectural motifs as soon as they were put up." (Childe Hassam and the Americanization of Fifth Avenue, p. 10 in Impressionist New York, p. 52)
Of all the major avenues in New York, Fifth Avenue has historically been the thoroughfare with the greatest significance. Though Hassam moved away from the quieter neighborhood of lower Fifth Avenue, to the more commercial area on West 57th Street, he remained true to his primary attractions: the refined and aristocratic inhabitants and locales of the city. Ilene S. Fort writes: "By the time of World War I Fifth Avenue in mid-Manhattan, above Forty-second Street, was the city's fashionable shopping district, noted for its elegantly dressed crowds and delightful window displays. So socially conscious did the avenue become that is was considered improper for young women to walk below Forty-fifth Street. Commercial vehicles were banned from the avenue, and the motor bus charged double fare." (The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam, Los Angeles, California, 1988, p. 100) Hassam's fascination with the modern Fifth Avenue finds its most succinct and famous expression in the Flag series, particularly in Flags, Afternoon on the Avenue.
Flags, Afternoon on the Avenue documents with great visual fanfare and splendor 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. Benjamin Strong, chairman of the Liberty Loan Committee for New York made the following comment about the Avenue: "We have always regarded Fifth Avenue as a most important element in our campaign work...It is well understood that events taking place on Fifth Avenue are reported throughout the United States and throughout the world through the press and through pictures." ("Glory of Fifth Avenue," Fifth Avenue Association, vol. 2 October 1918, p. 4 as quoted in The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam, p. 23)
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. In an interview some years later, Hassam recounted his reactions to this influential event: "I painted the flag series after we went to war. There was that Preparedness Day, and I looked up the Avenue and saw these wonderful flags waving, and I painted the series of flag pictures after that." (interview by Dewitt McClellan Lockman, February 2, 1927, transcript, p. 26, Lockman Papers as quoted in The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam, p. 8)
Flags, Afternoon on the Avenue, borne from the excitement and patriotic sentiment released during this time in America's history, was one of Hassam's earliest accomplishments in the Flag series. Illene S Fort writes: "Although the exact month in which this painting was done is unknown, it may be one of the first flag paintings Hassam created after the United States entered the war. The inclusion of a few British, French and Italian Flags among the plethora of United States banners suggests that the painting was more likely done during or after the war commissioners of the major Allied nations began visiting the United States, that is, in May 1917 or later. However, extreme impressionist handling links the work to Hassam's earlier flag images."(The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam, p. 43)
Hassam's interest in flag subjects dates back to his short residence in Paris in the late 1880s. Inspired by the flags and banners displayed on Bastille Day in the area where he lived, Hassam explored this theme in both watercolor and oil. 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 during his stay in Paris. 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 Impressionists stylistic technique which Hassam viewed in the 1880s can be seen in his flag series and is more pronounced in Flags, Afternoon on the Avenue.
The stylistic elements of Hassam's flag pictures slightly varied by choosing different elevations, techniques of brush work as well as times of day and weather conditions. Of the series, Flags, Afternoon on the Avenue represents one of Hassam's greatest accomplishments of American Impressionism. The visual impact of Flags, Afternoon on the Avenue is an ingenious combination of agitated brush stroke, composition, color and atmospheric effect. The artist's dramatic and cavernous perspective down Fifth Avenue is created by looming skyscrapers that dwarf throngs of people and cabs below. Punctuating the sides of the skyscrapers are a myriad of American flags that stand aggressively against the wind. Hassam's limited color choice of primarily red, white and blue cleverly echoes the colors of the American flag. Ilene S. Fort further describes the Impressionist attributes of Flags, Afternoon on Avenue: "Hassam has cast Fifth Avenue, with its line of skyscrapers, in soft atmospheric veils. Nothing is clearly delineated; all appears indistinct and intangible. The title places the time of day as afternoon, and the twilight hour may partly account for the shadowy haze. Hassam's handling, ranging from transparent washes to thick dabs of pigment and passages of impasto, contributes substantially to the effect. The result is one of the supreme impressionist paintings of the flag series."
The entire image shimmers with opalescent hues. In its palette the painting is closest to The Avenue in the Rain (1917, The White House, Washington,DC), although not as sweet. Hassam built up the skyscrapers from strokes of variegated tints applied over a soft, almost rubbed field of blue. The street traffic, indicated by heavy paint applied over a deep purple wash, appears equally indistinct. Despite the vagueness, the national flags emerge from the overall impression. (The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam, p. 43)
Underscoring the stylistic attributes of Flags, Afternoon on the Avenue is its symbolic significance. Hassam, in the present picture and with the entire series, put forth on canvas his strong patriotic convictions during this time. The proud display of the American and Allied flags transcended Hassam's stylistic conventions to create some of the most important visual iconography in American Impressionist painting: America. "Hassam was virulent in his dislike of Germany and ardent in his promotion of America as the land of liberty and democracy. He could devise no more appropriate imagery to underscore his beliefs than New York bedecked in the American and allied flags. The juxtaposition of the skyscraper city--emblem of the country's technological prowess--with the national banners--symbols of democracy--insured the meaning of the flag pictures." (I.S. Fort, Childe Hassam's New York, Rohnert Park, California, 1993, p. XIV.)
The collection of flag paintings Hassam executed between 1916 and 1918 was extremely important to the artist and he was strongly committed to the idea that they remain together as a series. Soon after World War I ended, Hassam exhibited his flag paintings as a series for the first time at the Durand-Ruel Gallery on November 15, 1918 under the title "A Series of Paintings of the Avenue of the Allies by Childe Hassam." The exhibition was comprised of twenty views of the city, includingFlags, Afternoon on the Avenue (figure b), three interior scenes and Hassam's self portrait. In the spring of 1919, the works traveled to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and then returned to New York that same year to be shown at the Milch Galleries, Church of the Ascension, and College of the City of New York. The exhibitions were well received as one contemporary critic submitted the following review: "They [the flag pictures] have an extraordinary gusto and gayety [sic], evoking just the temper in which you toss your hat to get some of, our joyousness into the air and out of your nerves. And this was the temper of the be-flagged New York during the war. It will seem to future generations fed upon literature of horrors and sacrifices almost incredible that they can be true records not only of the aspect but of the spirit of the city. Their spiritual truth, however, is what will keep them alive and important." ("Notes on Current Art,"New York Times, June 1, 1919, sec. 3. p. 4) The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC hosted the final exhibition of the flag series within Hassam's lifetime in February 1922. By promoting the flag series through these exhibitions, Hassam had hoped to sell the group of paintings as a whole, but without success. They all were eventually sold individually.
Flags, Afternoon on the Avenue remains today an inspiring visual testament of national pride and democratic ideals. Flags, Afternoon on the Avenue embodies the quintessential elements of Hassam's work seen not only in its Impressionist execution but in its iconic representation of the new America. As one critic succinctly stated: "[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....." (E. Haskell, "Introduction," in Childe Hassam, New York, 1922, p. viii)
This painting will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonn of the artist's work.