Cityscapes, landscapes and interiors with female figures comprise an important part of Childe Hassam's oeuvre; it is, however, scenes of women and flower gardens that are a genre for which the artist is particularly recognized and which comprise the subject of some of his most memorable images. By 1896, the year Childe Hassam painted the present work, Mrs. Hassam in the Garden, he had begun to attain maturity and success with his art, as was noted by a critic from The New York Times, "few of our native painters have succeeded in so many directions. Sea, landscape, architecture, flowers, still life, animals and figuresHe seems able to paint anything his fancy dictates.He can be as finished, as broad, as impressionist, as colorful as the best of them, and all at will. ("Pictures by Childe Hassam," The New York Times, 2 February 1896, p. 21)
Frederick Childe Hassam was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1859. Early in his life, Hassam preferred his middle name, which he shared with an uncle. Hassam had distinguished ancestors on both sides of his family; his mother was related to novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and his paternal grandfather was related to painter William Morris Hunt and architect Richard Morris Hunt.
As a child, Hassam took an interest in painting watercolors as he copied sporting prints in his home and used an old horse coach in his backyard as a studio. Hassam said of the coach, "It had steps that let down and a large flap pocket in the door. I would let down the steps and put my water colors in the flap with my pad of Whatman paper-climb into the well cushioned seat and stay there as long as a boy stays put anywhere." He continued, "I had artists' material given to me as early as I can remember. I cannot remember when I did not have artists' materials. Water colors, colored crayons, etc." (as quoted in U.W. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, New York, 1994, p. 13)
The young artist began his career as an apprentice to a wood engraver and his talent allowed him to be quickly promoted to draughtsman. He worked on commercial projects such as newspaper mastheads and business stationary, including the masthead for the Marblehead Messenger. Soon after, he opened his own studio and became an independent illustrator for magazines and children's publications, working with Harper's, Scribner's, The Century, Babyland, Wide Awake and Saint Nicholas, as well as for numerous books. Around 1878, Hassam began taking formal lessons in drawing and painting at the Lowell Institute and the Boston Art Club.
Hassam's most important influence while studying and painting in Boston was his relative, William Morris Hunt. Although they never met, "Hunt preached the necessity of working outdoors, directly from nature, and, recognizing that the act of seeing was not a systematic inventorying of detail, but a selective and synthesizing process, he argued that painting ought to imitate the true nature of optical perceptions. 'Atmosphere and light are the great things to work for in landscape painting,' said Hunt, and in acting on this principle, realized his own landscapes by means of broad, summary masses unified by an overall tonality. Add to this Hunt's emphasis on the personal, spiritual element in painting, and we have a synopsis of the ideas propagated by his followers and absorbed by Hassam." (Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, p. 18)
The origin of Hassam's light palette and interest in the theme of women and flowers appears to have coincided with an extended stay in France, a period during which he closely studied and adopted aspects of the Impressionist technique, approach and choice of subject matter that he molded to suit his own aesthetic objectives. 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 the ways of Impressionism.
Hassam enrolled at the Academie Julian where he studied under the influential instructors Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, 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 Academie, Hassam learned his most important artistic lessons on his own.
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 French Impressionist painters. Hassam also adopted the favored subjects of the Impressionists, including women and flowers. Although Hassam never visited Giverny nor met Claude Monet, he wrote from Paris to the Boston critic William Howe Downes, "even Claude Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and the school of extreme impressionists do some things that are charming and thus will live." (as quoted in W. Gerdts, Childe Hassam: Impressionist, New York, 1999, p. 171)
During their residence in Paris, Hassam and his wife Maud formed a close friendship with Ernest Blumenthal, a German businessman, and his wife. The Hassams visited the summer residence of the Blumenthals, which was located on an estate owned by the daughter of the French artist, Thomas Couture, in Villiers-le-Bel, 10 miles outside Paris. The home was a "walled enclosure that included formal terraces, flower beds, winding paths, earthen walkways, and benches set beneath shade trees." (Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, p. 50) Because of their limited financial resources while living in Paris, these visits to the Blumenthal family home in the Oise Valley were the only trips the Hassams made out of the city. Hassam wrote in a letter, "I wish we were at the Shoals for this summer but we will really go to Villiers-le-Bel and I shall paint in a charming old French garden." (as quoted in Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, p. 50)
During his visits to Villiers-le-Bel, he produced a number of compositions depicting female figures in flower gardens, including: After Breakfast (The Garden at Villiers-le-Bel) (1887, Private collection); Gathering Flowers in a French Garden (1888, Worcester Art Museum); Geraniums (1888, Hyde Collection Art Museum, Glens Falls, New York); The Artist's Wife in a Garden, Villiers-le-Bel (1889, Private collection); and In the Garden (circa 1888-89, Private collection). "Hassam's paintings of lovely women in the garden attached to the Blumenthal house are some of his finest Impressionist works, and, though far more infused with everyday narrative, recall the garden pictures by Claude Monet and other French Impressionist masters." (Childe Hassam: Impressionist, p. 171) In these paintings of women in the Blumenthals' garden, Hassam conveys a strong romantic parallel between the woman and the flowers. This romantic theme re-emerges in his later interiors, however the garden paintings are Hassam's strongest statements on the splendor of women. Hassam has painted these women as secondary to the magnificent flowers that surround them. This theme of women and flowers that began in Paris would continue throughout his career.
Hassam's After Breakfast of 1887 depicts a woman seated at a breakfast table reading the morning paper. At the center of the composition, a beautiful young maid waters tiers of potted geraniums. Despite the difference in their social class, Hassam has painted them with equal grace and beauty as both are surrounded by the vibrant red flowers and lush green trees of the garden. Hassam's mastery of light and shadow is seen as spots of sunlight break through the trees onto the shadowed terrace. With broken brushstrokes and use of color and light, After Breakfast demonstrates French Impressionism's growing influence on Hassam.
Painted in 1888, Geraniums presents Maud Hassam in a delicate profile while seated in the doorway of the Blumenthal house. Surrounded by tiers of geraniums, Mrs. Hassam can barely be seen. The focus of the painting is the brightly-colored geraniums in vivid reds and pinks. These shocks of color are contrasted with the earthy-colored terra cotta pots and gray watering cans. Painted as a secondary feature, Hassam takes care to depict his wife with delicate features as flowers frame her face. Softer hues of pinks and blues gather in pools as the sun hits the wall, flower pots and ground. This subject matter, style and use of bright color continue throughout Hassam's career.
Beginning in 1890, Hassam's summer months were often spent at various New England locales, especially coastal regions, with Gloucester, Massachusetts and the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, among his most frequent destinations. Hassam's interest in floral subjects continues through these years in representations of the cultivated garden of his close friend, the poet, writer, gardener and hostess, Celia Thaxter, who lived on the island of Appledore, a place he visited repeatedly for extended periods between 1890 and 1916. His scenes of her garden tend to be looser and more suggestive in their approach than the earlier French garden paintings. In the Garden (Celia Thaxter in Her Garden) (1892, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., gift of John Gellatly) depicts Ms. Thaxter bathed in sunlight, lost in her thoughts and surrounded by her flowers. Hassam's affection for Celia Thaxter can be seen as she is painted as lovely as the brightly colored flowers in her garden.
The present painting, Mrs. Hassam in the Garden of 1896, directly recalls Hassam's French garden scenes of the late 1880s and Hassam's paintings of Celia Thaxter's garden of the 1890s. As Hassam did not return to Villiers-le-Bel until the following year, his working method for Mrs. Hassam in the Garden could have entailed revisiting compositional ideas he had initiated at an earlier date and which he would rework in a new interpretation or it may have been conceived and started while Hassam was still in France.
In the painting, Mrs. Hassam is pictured poised in the act of trimming beautiful lilac blooms, some of which she is holding in her hand. Previously cut larger branches are visible on the ground near to where she is standing and next to her is a stool on which she may have stood to cut the higher branches. Mrs. Hassam looks lovely, sporting a crisp afternoon dress with her hair softly framing her delicate face. Behind Mrs. Hassam the sun sets in the distance peeking over the garden wall. Although this painting lacks the pronounced planes and architectural settings seen in the earlier French garden compositions, which gave those works a greater sense of formality, Mrs. Hassam in the Garden is much softer in its composition and color, underscoring the beauty and grace paralleled in the flowers and the woman.
The overflowing lilacs in Mrs. Hassam in the Garden is the primary focus as Mrs. Hassam has a diminutive presence in contrast to the large bushes that surround her. Lilacs were a flower that attracted Hassam's interest throughout his career, as seen in works including In the Garden; French Tea Garden (1910, Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee, gift of Brentwood Foundation); and Lady in the Park (In the Garden) (1897, Private collection). Hassam also exhibited paintings of that subject on several occasions in 1895 and 1896. In 1896, he exhibited a painting, Lilacs, at the spring National Academy annual, which depicted a female figure seated on a balustrade. ("Spring Academy," The World, 29 March 1896, p. 6). In the same year, Hassam held a sale of his work at the American Art Galleries, in New York, of which two were devoted to lilac subjects. (H.B. Weinberg, Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, New York, 2004, pp. 378-9)
Mrs. Hassam in the Garden is characterized by a more fluid naturalism that is most evident in the artist's increasingly assured brushwork, refined sense of color, and command of the oil medium. The lush blossoms and verdant foliage are vehicles for Hassam to demonstrate his maturing Impressionist technique. Though aspects of the painting are articulated, such as the visage and arm of his wife, the stool, and the wall, the overriding technique is the typical broken brushstrokes of Impressionism. Brushy flecks and daubs of highlighted color picked up in the purple flowers and greenery infuse the canvas with a sense of lively energy. In the foreground, streaks of similarly colored light pigment give way to even looser brushwork that animates the foreground and harmoniously unifies the composition. This sophisticated handling of paint combined with the soft palette emphasizes the atmospheric effect of a summer evening.
The painting also displays wonderful light effects as Hassam uses the setting sun to emphasize the romanticism of the scene. The pink and orange of the glowing twilight diffuses the scene as it reflects off of Mrs. Hassam's face and white dress and adds texture and color variations to the lilacs and surrounding garden. One critic wrote of Hassam's garden scenes 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 skillfully manages in several garden scenes, where the soft breath of summer can almost be felt." (Childe Hassam: Impressionist, p. 172)
Through a deft handling of composition, brushstroke, color, light and atmosphere, the scene which Hassam portrays in Mrs. Hassam in the Garden moves beyond a visual record of a woman cutting flowers. By painting the scene from ground level, rather than from an elevated viewpoint, Hassam gives the work a more intimate feel that emphasizes Mrs. Hassam in this contemplative activity. "Like his fellow American Impressionists, Hassam tended to retain the identity of the subject he painted, instead of dissolving it in an envelope of color in the way of some of the French painters, for example, Claude Monet. In this, he was following a very strong American tradition to particularize and to heighten the reality of the physical world through the painted image." (D.F. Hoopes, Childe Hassam, New York, 1988, p. 9)
Of Hassam's garden paintings, In the Garden, circa 1888 to 1889, is the closest antecedent to Mrs. Hassam in the Garden in its similarly vertical structure and depiction of blooming lilacs surrounding the female figure in profile. In the Garden, however, differs most notably from the present work in its more diminutive scale and unidentified model seated on a low garden wall. Although Hassam places the figure prominently in the foreground, her pink dress blends with the large lilac bushes painted in the same hues in the background. As the beautiful young woman and the lilac blossoms meld, short brushstrokes of red flowers emerge from this purple and pink palette.
In the same location as In the Garden, Lady in the Park (In the Garden) (Private collection), is similar to Mrs. Hassam in the Garden and painted the following year. The painting depicts a beautiful woman standing in what is most likely the Blumenthals' garden. She leans against a low wall lined with bright red flowers as lilacs hang overhead. A manicured garden with a bench and walkway is in view beyond. The woman holds some of her cuttings of the lilac bushes while other blossoms have been placed in a bucket at her feet and overflow onto the ground. Hassam paints Lady in the Park with short brushstrokes, bright colors and a play of light and shadow, now the hallmarks of the artist's best paintings.
Although women and flowers continued to be important in Hassam's art later in his career, the paintings are more formal with less emphasis on the floral setting. French Tea Garden (Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee, gift of Brentwood Foundation) of 1910 is an example of these works, depicting a woman seated at a breakfast table nestled in a garden. The woman and the still life of jars, bowls, plates, cups and a vase of flowers on the table are clearly the focus of the painting. Although she is surrounded by flowers, they are merely a decorative screen behind her. Probably painted in the Blumenthals' garden, the work is less specific than the geranium filled earlier works of the artist's first trips to the home. Discussing the later works painted in Villiers-le-Bel, Mr. Hiesinger writes, "Though their themes recall Hassam's paintings of the 1880s, their method of modeling, with short, nervous dashes of pigment, is vastly different and, while intended, perhaps to reflect the shimmer of light upon surfaces, creates instead a shifting, dappled surface that becomes the picture's primary object of attention." (Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, pp. 109, 115)
Hassam, in an interview with A.E. Ives 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 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)
Maud Hassam often posed for her husband and she can be recognized in a number of his garden scenes, however, the delicate profile portrait of her seen in Mrs. Hassam in the Garden is among the most fully realized and comely likenesses of her. The painting is an intimate portrait of the artist's wife as well as a garden landscape. Two of Childe Hassam's most celebrated themes-floral gardens and women--are united in a singular impressionistic masterwork; Mrs. Hassam in the Garden is a painting of compelling grace and beauty and an exceptional garden scene from the mid 1890s.
This painting will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.