The success of Childe Hassam's metropolitan views of Boston, New York and Paris is attributed to his love of observing the vitality of city life and the artist's unique style of composition, color, light and atmosphere. Childe Hassam's paintings of Fifth Avenue have long been acknowledged as masterworks of American Impressionism and the present work, Fifth Avenue, is among the artist's finest Impressionist works of New York's most fashionable thoroughfare.
As the first American artist to gain renown as a painter of urban views, Hassam began his career in Boston. In 1884, he married and moved with his wife, Maude, to an apartment near Back Bay. There, "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" Childe Hassam: Impressionist, New York, 1999, p. 129) Exploring Boston's fashionable West End by 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 one early example, Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston (1885, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts), Hassam presents a dramatic vista emphasizing the full breadth of the new thoroughfare. Rather than filling the street, the artist scatters a few cabs and pedestrians with umbrellas to accentuate the width of the street.
Hassam's interest in the activity of streets and city parks blossomed during his sojourn 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 there who were seeking to immerse themselves in the ways of Impressionism. 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 as he took to the streets for inspiration. During this time Hassam's style exhibited a subtle shift away from his more static approach evident in his works from his earlier Bostonian period and absorbed various tenets of Impressionism, and moved him closer to his goal of "refining his talent in the larger crucible of contemporary art." (D.F. Hoopes, Childe Hassam, New York, 1982, p. 13)
While in Paris, Hassam's style changed dramatically from that of his early work in Boston. He no longer painted in the grays and browns of the Tonalist style, having replaced it with bright light and color and the short brushstrokes of the Impressionists. The Parisian works illustrate both Hassam's early interest in the subject of street life as seen in his high-keyed Carriage Parade (1888, Haggin Collection, The Haggin Museum, Stockton, California) and his unique painting techniques, important elements that would mature in his oeuvre. Hassam, however, consistently rejected his formal classification as an 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)
As Hassam turned to the streets and boulevards of Paris for inspiration, he observed finely dressed Parisians being driven in carriages and strolling along the promenades, providing a view into the leisure lives of the upper class. Carriage Parade depicts a sun-drenched avenue filled with equipages near the Arc de Triomphe. The men are in suits and top hats while the women are dressed in the finest dresses and carry brightly colored parasols. The artist also crops the image on the lower and right sides making the image a snapshot, a technique used by Edgar Degas, whose work he would have seen while in Paris. This technique allows the viewer to be seated in a carriage and participate in the pageantry. Hassam's departure from his Tonalist palette is evident in dashes of green and yellow of the trees lining the boulevard and dabs of reds, blues and yellows suggesting the colorful array of hats, parasols and flowers on display. With broken brushstrokes and use of color and light, Carriage Parade demonstrates French Impressionism's growing influence on the artist.
Recognizing the prominence of New York in American artistic life, 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." (as quoted in H.B. Weinberg, "Hassam in Paris," Childe Hassam, American Impressionist, New Haven, Connecticut, 2004, p. 90) 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." (as quoted in "Hassam in Paris," Childe Hassam, American Impressionist, p. 90)
In Fifth Avenue, the viewer is walking north on the east side of the avenue. On the west side of the street, the silhouettes of the Church of the Ascension at Tenth Street and the First Presbyterian Church at Twelfth Street can be seen. His concentration on the sidewalk rather than the traffic of the street substantiates a remark by a writer in 1891, "Cut off from the residential district to the northward by the river of traffic that flows along Fourteenth Street, the lower end of Fifth Avenue forms a picturesque oasis, where the aristocratic air of old Knickerbocker stateliness lingers amid a commonplace environment. The six blocks between Washington Square and Thirteenth Street are a unique corner of New York. Their architecture is that of a generation that has now passed away...The trees that line the street...help to make this one of the most picturesque points of Fifth Avenue." (as quoted in "Hassam in New York, 1889-1896," Childe Hassam, American Impressionist, p. 101)
Among the many well-heeled citizens of Fifth Avenue that crowd the sidewalk in Fifth Avenue, are a mother and daughter walking south as the young girl carries an apple and book while her mother is elegantly adorned in a beautiful pink dress with long, purple gloves, carrying a parasol. The vibrant red of the apple is echoed in her hat, as well as the older woman's hat behind her to the left while the graceful gentleman with a monocle to her right has a vibrant boutonniere. Hassam crowds the background with top hats and ladies with children in their Sunday's finest attire. This procession personifies the dynamism of the city that Hassam found fascinating. In an interview he noted, "There is nothing so interesting to me as people. I am never tired of observing them in everyday life, as they hurry through the streets on business or saunter down the promenade on pleasure. Humanity in motion is a continual study to me." (as quoted in W. Adelson, "Cosmopolitan and Patriot" Childe Hassam: Impressionist, pp. 34, 37)
Committed to nature and an advocate of documenting contemporary life, Hassam found that it was necessary to be compositionally selective in his observations. As seen in Carriage Parade and in Fifth Avenue the artist crops the scene, particularly noticeable along the left edge as the drivers and horses in the street are barely discernible as well as a man holding a glove is bisected as he waits for his companion to greet a fellow pedestrian. With his grouping of figures together on the sidewalk, he effectively captures the composition of a busy avenue on a lovely spring day. Hassam explained his compositional methods, "I do not mean to convey the idea that you may at any minute find a subject ready at hand to paint. The artist must know how to compose a picture, and how to use the power of selection. I do not always find the streets interesting, so I wait until I see picturesque groups, and those that compose well in relation to the whole. I always see my picture as a whole. No matter how attractive the group might be, if it was going to drag my composition out of balance, either in line or color, I should resist the temptation of sketching it. I should wait, if it were a street scene, till the vehicles or people disposed themselves in a manner more conducive to a good effect for the whole." ("Talks with Artists: Childe Hassam on Painting Street Scenes," p. 117)
In Fifth Avenue, 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. 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)
Hassam believed New York to be the most beautiful city in the world, rivaling other metropolises such as Paris, a city historically known for its elegance. Echoing his other comments about his adopted city, New York, Hassam once remarked that, "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) In Fifth Avenue, Hassam pays homage to New York and to one of the grandest boulevards in America, creating an iconic image of a bustling city alive with people and the new blossoms of spring.
This watercolor will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.