Childe Hassam at the turn of the century explored a variety of fashionable neighborhoods throughout New York City. His canvases devoted to Fifth Avenue, however, are his most revered works. The Cathedral and Fifth Avenue in June from 1893, portraying the various old and new structures along Fifth Avenue on a summer day, illustrates Hassam's brilliant achievement of melding not only the hallmarks of American Impressionism, but the grandeur of New York entering the modern age.
Hassam as early as 1885 began portraying modern city life in the city of Boston, exploring the fashionable west end by the Charles River. Between 1886 and 1889, the artist lived in Paris where his interest in urban life focused on the famous bustling boulevards, capturing the comings and goings of the elite populace. In November of 1889, Hassam returned to New York, recognizing its prominence as an international art center. He settled into a studio at 95 Fifth Avenue, an extremely popular neighborhood located at the lower part of the avenue, and was immediately enthralled by the cultural vitality and cosmopolitan airs of the city. Drawing inspiration from his local environs, Hassam recorded the daily activities of city life. Three years later, Hassam moved into an apartment in the Chelsea Hotel at 222 West 23rd Street, an area that was still in close proximity to his favorite painting locales. In 1893, Hassam moved out of the lower Fifth Avenue environment and relocated further uptown to the Rembrant Studio Building at 152 West 57th Street. Hassam had initially considered moving to this neighborhood when he first arrived in New York, but he felt it to be "away out in the country." (U.W. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam, American Impressionist, New York, 1994, p. 99)
By the time Hassam moved to West Fifty-seventh Street, the area had burgeoned into a thriving commercial district. The new neighborhood, however, immediately fascinated Hassam and he quickly began portraying areas in and around his new environment, which included vistas along upper Fifth Avenue. Hassam, along with many artists at the turn of the century migrated northward towards upper Fifth Avenue, newer areas that represented the coming modern age of New York. Office buildings, large hotels, grand mansions, restaurants and cultural institutions along the avenue closer to mid-town were becoming the central focus of their fascination. One critic would write in 1899 about how Hassam's old neighborhood had become less desirable: "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." (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)
Of all the major avenues in New York, Fifth Avenue has historically been the thoroughfare with the greatest significance. Fifth Avenue derived its name from its location in the 1811 Commisioners' Map which was a plan for the new city made up of streets in a gridiron fashion. According to Jerry E. Patterson, "Fifth Avenue had a unique importance from the day the commissioners chose it to be the divider between the east and west sides of New York, the long chalk line down the island of Manhattan. Although no one conceived that Fifth Avenue would someday stretch six and half miles up the island, it was clearly assumed that it would be the principle thoroughfare." (Fifth Avenue, The Best Address, New York, 1998, pp. 13-14) The avenue officially opened years later in 1824 but only up to 13th Street and subsequently over time as far as Harlem. It was not until the 1870s that Fifth Avenue was suited for pedestrian use and vehicular traffic. By the 1890s, Fifth Avenue was a bustling thoroughfare and home to some of the city's, and the nation's, most prestigious residences, hotels, clubs and churches.
Hassam in The Cathedral and Fifth Avenue in June captures with a sweeping vista the fashionable area of Fifth Avenue beginning at Forty-ninth Street up to Central Park at Fifty-ninth Street. Looking along the east side of the thoroughfare, Hassam documents several important buildings, yet focuses with the greatest attention to one of the nation's most famous ecclesiastic structure, St. Patrick's Cathedral located between Fiftieth and Fifty-first Streets. Designed by James Renwick, Jr. in 1850, St. Patrick's Cathedral was constructed over two decades--because of the delays brought on by the Civil War--and opened to the public in 1879. The church's spires were completed in 1888. Hassam portrays the corner of The Buckingham Hotel, located to the right of the church between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Streets. It is now the current site of Saks Fifth Avenue. Built in 1873, this was one of the few hotels that was situated further uptown from the business and entertainment districts of the time. Further up the avenue past the small park Hassam portrays a cluster of low lying buildings which are most likely the famous row of individual chateau-like town houses located between Fifty-seventh and Fifty-eighth Streets known as "Marble Row." Built in 1869 as speculative housing for the very wealthy, these houses were considered to be some of the most opulent examples of private homes in New York at the time. In the 1890's, the real estate along this block became too valuable and the corner house at Fifty-eighth Street was turned into a bank. Located just past these buildings are two tall imposing structures that are most likely the luxury residential hotels, located on opposite corners of Fifty-ninth Street, The Savoy and The New Netherland, both built in 1892. Ralph S. Townsend designed the twelve story Classical-style Savoy and William H. Hume designed the New Netherland employing Romanesque characteristics. The New Netherland was 234 feet high and at the time was the tallest hotel in the world. Both hotels are no longer extant, but are now the sites for the Sherry-Netherland and the General Motors Building.
In The Cathedral and Fifth Avenue in June, Hassam celebrates the picturesque qualities of the varying styles of architecture and sees in these buildings a visual continuity. The Renaissance style of the Buckingham Hotel, the Gothic spires of St. Patrick's and the soaring Romanesque-style of The New Netherland exist separately, but interact naturally as a series of visual motifs that are inextricably linked by the humanity that passes by. Hassam, through his choice of spirited color, energized brushwork and crisp summer light unifies the image into an elegant city portrait not too unlike his portrayals of the stylishly clad pedestrians of lower Fifth Avenue.
Hassam believed New York to be the most beautiful city in the world, rivaling other European metropolises such as Paris, a city historically known for its elegance. Later the artist would comment: "There is no boulevard in all Paris that compares to our own Fifth Avenue." ("New York the Beauty City," New York Sun, February 23, 1913, p. 16 quoted in Impressionist New York, p. 45.) Hassam in The Cathedral and Fifth Avenue in June pays homage to New York and to one of the grandest boulevards of the time, creating an iconic image that embraces both the new and old New York.
This painting will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonn of the artist's work.