Childe Hassam's images of New York at the turn of the century are among the most important examples of American Impressionism. The success of Hassam's urban scenes 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. Hassam at this time also bore witness to many changes that rapidly altered the topography of the city as it was entering the modern age. Along with a burgeoning population, New York witnessed a dramatic increase in construction of new buildings; structures such as the St. Regis Hotel, the Knickerbocker Trust and Safe Deposit Building and the Flat Iron Building significantly changed the once low-lying skyline into a crenellated horizon. The evolving skyline intrigued Hassam as more intimate views of old New York gave way to elevated sweeping vistas that accommodated the taller buildings of a changing New York. These works that capture the bustling city from a lofty perspective represented a harmonious amalgamation of the artist's beloved old New York and the emergence of the new New York. Through Hassam's innovative Impressionist gaze, Across the Park from 1904 poignantly illustrates the artist's unique relationship with the rapidly changing environment in which he lived.
Hassam's interest in urban subjects dates back as early as 1885 to the city of Boston where the artist resided with his wife Kathleen Maude Doan. Exploring the fashionable west end by the Charles River inspired the artist to begin portraying modern city life. Hassam moved to Paris in 1886 where his continued interest in urban life focused on the famous bustling boulevards and parks capturing the comings and goings of the city's elite populace. 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 became quickly enthralled with the cultural vitality and cosmopolitan airs of the city. 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. One critic later hailed 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 steets and the tone of the city." (W.H. Howe and G. Torry, "Childe Hassam," Art Interchange 34, May 1895, p. 133)
Hassam remained at this studio on lower Fifth Avenue for the next two years and then moved in 1892 to the Chelsea Hotel at 22 West 23rd Street and about a year later he moved farther uptown to the Rembrandt Studio Building on West Fifty-Seventh Street. After a brief trip to Europe in 1897, Hassam returned to New York and by 1903 the artist resided in a new studio apartment building located at 27 West 67th Street. Unlike the more genteel neighborhoods of lower Fifth Avenue, the upper west side was a considerably more diverse locale in not only its inhabitants, but because of its proximity to some of the city's most dynamic changes.
Hassam's new residence was situated in the hub of an ambitious building campaign. New to the West Side was the construction of grand multi-storied luxury apartments and residential hotels such as the Ansonia (1899-1904) and The Doralton (1902). Hassam's own studio apartment building was a recent architectural phenomenon to New York. The successful design of a studio apartment where an artist could live, work and display their art at a moderate price was introduced in 1901 by the artist Henry Ward Ranger who along with architects Sturgis and Simonson constructed the first building of its kind at 25 West 67th Street. It was a relatively narrow building with fourteen floors containing duplex and simplex apartments. The success of this concept inspired the construction of several more adjacent buildings based on the same plan, including Hassam's own building and 29-33 West 67th Street.
In conjunction with the building boom, the West Side in 1904 commemorated the opening of the first segment of the new subway line that ran along Broadway. By the turn of the century New York transportation had become unbearably slow due to heavily congested traffic. The construction of the subway profoundly impacted New York functionally and more importantly established the metropolis as one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world.
Working and living amidst this great change, Hassam's studio window view inspired a series of works that tackled the city's growth with a delicate visual sensibility. Important canvases from this series such as The Hovel and The Skyscraper (1904, Mr. and Mrs. Meyer Potamkin) illustrate Hassam's acute awareness of the changing skyline. Across the Park, executed in the same year, is one of the most inspiring images from this series. With great finesse, Hassam contrasts the old New York embodied in Central Park and the emergence of new New York evidence by the thickly settled horizon line that has grown up around the green haven.
Across the Park is a panoramic view composed of Central Park West, Central Park and the mass of buildings bordering the east side of the park. Past the glimpse of Central Park West, dotted with a few pedestrians and a horse drawn vehicle, is Hassam's primary focus-- Central Park. At its opening in the late 1850s, Central Park provided a much needed escape for an urban population that was suffering under the burden of rapid instrialization. The park achieved emblematic status and came to embody the nation's antidote for the encroaching modern world.
Developed in the mid-nineteenth century, Central Park was the largest and most acclaimed urban park in the country. The park's conception reflected the desire of mostly wealthy landowners and merchants to create a public ground that would rival the ones of London and Paris and establish an international reputation for New York. It was also a solution to the urgent need of city planners to provide a green and tranquil haven for New York's rapidly growing population. William Cullen Bryant in 1844 recommended the establishment of an urban green space, but it wasn't until 1853 that this idea was approved. The eight hundred acre expanse of uneven swampy terrain, bluffs and rocky outcroppings between Fifth and Eighth Avenues spanning from Fifty-ninth Street to One hundred-sixth Street (later to One hundred-tenth Street) was chosen as the site for the park. In 1857 a contest was held to design the park (the first of its kind in the century) and Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux submitted the winning entry with their "Greensward Plan." The "Greensward Plan," which challenged the greatest European parks at the time, melded pastoral, picturesque and formal landscape elements influenced by the English romantic tradition. Olmsted's premise for the park's development at once embraced the objectives of the city planners and acknowledged the plights of the urban dweller.
The park's construction was one of the most extensive public works project undertaken by New York City during the nineteenth century. In order to create the "natural" landscape designed by Olmsted and Vaux, extensive changes were required of the raw terrain to make it worthy for vast plantings of trees, plants, vines and flowers. Incorporated into Olmsted's and Vaux's plan were various picturesque buildings, bridges, lakes, artificial ponds and fountains. Equally integral to the plan were the distinct and separate curvilinear carriage routes, pedestrian walks and equestrian paths that were mapped out throughout the park (fig. a).
Hassam's Across the Park portrays a broad view of Central Park, yet captures in greater detail the tranquil area located near the Sixty-seventh street entrance off of Central Park West. Hassam depicts the sidewalk bordering the park along Central Park West, which was planted with a single row of pin oaks, a hearty tree that could survive the city. The park's designers Olmstead and Vaux placed great importance on this tree lined border in efforts to create a leafy screen to mask the approaching city from within the park. This natural foil was quite successful up until the turn of the century when a new era of construction began to dwarf the trees. (H.H. Reed, Central Park, A History and a Guide, New York, 1967, p. 59) Past the park's walled border is a curved equestrian path, which eventually comes up to West Drive, one of the main carriage routes. In the further distance, Hassam depicts a corner of the Sheep Meadow, a twenty-two acre clearing in the park between Sixty-sixth and Seventy-first Streets. Initially named The Green by Olmsted, the spanse of land was originally set aside as a parade ground, yet it was also used for a short while for military exercises. In 1865, military drills were banned from the park and the land was given over to a flock of one-hundred fifty Southdown sheep that were under the supervision of a traditional herdsman. Nestled among a cluster of tall trees to the right of the equestrian path is a group of Victorian-style buildings that functioned as a sheepfold (fig. b). Designed by the Jacob Wrey Mould, the architect responsible for much of the ornamental work of Bethesda Terrace, and constructed in 1870, the buildings housed the sheep, which grazed on the Sheep Meadow, and the sheepherder. At the time, the park commissioner wanted to hang portraits of sheep and specimens of wool in the pavilions for visitors to admire. In 1934, the sheepfold was converted to the well known restaurant Tavern on the Green. The flock of sheep, considered "inbred and producing malformed progeny" were exiled for a short while to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, after which they were banished forever. (Central Park, p. 64)
Beyond the sea of greenery and open expanses of lawn emerges the heavy concentration of buildings along the East Side of the park. At the park's eastern edge, Hassam alludes to the famous Arsenal located at Sixty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue. Designed by Martin E. Thompson, the medieval looking five story brick fortress was completed in 1851. Over the next several decades the Arsenal served various functions, including home for the Municipal Weather Bureau and the American Museum of Natural History. Hassam renders the remaining structures generally unrecognizable, yet it was well known that opulent mansions and luxury apartment buildings flourished along Fifth, Madison and Park Avenues near Central Park. The most famous grouping of these houses along the park was named "Millionaire's Row" located on Fifth Avenue between Forty-sixth Street and Seventy-second Street. Composed of palazzi, chateaux and fortresses, these architectural splendors were homes to many of the wealthiest families in the nation including the Vanderbilts and the Astors. Among the non-descript buildings on the horizon are three distinct structures creating imposing silhouettes. These forms draw visual reference to the recent and rampant development of multi-story luxury apartment buildings.
The elevated vantage point of Across the Park reflects Hassam's keen awareness of the changing skyline. Hassam's predilection for elevated views began to materialize earlier in his career with works such as Union Square in Spring (Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts) from 1896. An even earlier impetus behind such pictures, both in content and style, was his exposure to the works of the French Impressionists Claude Monet and Camille Pissaro during his stay in Paris between 1886 and 1889. Both French artists used an elevated perspective to produce panoramic images of Parisian parks and the surrounding city. The lingering influence of the French Impressionist techniques finds reference in Across the Park. Hassam observed later in 1898, "From the tops of the enormous buildings one can get magnificent sweeps along the rivers and over tops of buildings." ('New York Beautiful,' Commercial Advertiser, New York, January 15, 1898, p. 9)
The "magnificent sweep" created in Across the Park illustrates Hassam's brilliant painting techniques and reinforces his reputation as one of America's greatest Impressionist painters. Through deft handling of brushwork and composition, Across the Park becomes a tantalizing visual diplay of color, light and atmosphere. Hassam employs a steady yet broken brushstroke that infuses the work with a tactile quality that energizes the scene. The short, staccato strokes enliven the trees, give movement to the riders and the figures on the street and enhance the surfaces of the sheepfold in the foreground as well as in the massive buildings in the background. This sophisticated handling of paint combined with a jewel-like palette emphasizes Hassam's atmospheric effect of a sun-filled day. In Across the Park Hassam creates the rejuvenating warmth of a spring day composed of luminous greens, yellows and blues. From this dominant color scheme emerges the contrasted brilliance of orange, red and white seen in the trotting horse, the slow moving carriage and the brick walls of the sheepfold. Hassam bathes the work with intense sunlight that does not diffuse the scene, but lends form and texture to the figures, buildings and landscape.
Hassam's compositional techniques in Across the Park further underscore the visual impact of the work and its ability to crystallize, in a fleeting moment, a feeling of timelessness within city that is continually marching forward. The work is divided into three separate sections all of which are different in character, but are connected through form and line. Hassam visually borders either side of Central Park with a frieze-like arrangement of forms. The trees lining the sidewalk and the groups of figures walking slowing down Central Park West creates one compositional border and the irregular skyline of the buildings seen in the distance creates an impenetrable wall that is the other border. In between exists the park composed of free flowing curvilinear forms and angled lines represented in the tree tops, equestrian paths, carriage routes and the steep pitched roofs of the sheepfold. As a result, Hassam establishes a visual rhythm that demands the viewer absorb the dynamic splendour of the city.
Through Hassam's ingenious impressionistic technique, Across the Park stands as a powerful visual statement about New York entering a modern age. Hassam in an interview less than a decade later commented: "The portrait of the city, you see, is in a way like a portrait of a person--the difficulty is to catch not only the superficial resemblance but the inner self. The spirit, that's what counts, and one should strive to portray the soul of a city with the same care as a soul of a sitter." ("New York the Beauty City," The Sun, February 23, 1913, sec. 4, p. 16) Hassam's Across the Park poignantly reveals the soul of the city: the continuity of change.
This painting will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonn of the artist's work.