We would like to thank the Hassam catalogue raisonné committee for their assistance with cataloguing this work.
This painting will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.
In 1892, Childe Hassam reflected, "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." (I.S. Fort, Childe Hassam’s New York, San Francisco, California, 1993, p. VII) Indeed, the success of Hassam's metropolitan views of Boston, New York and Paris derives from his love of observing the vitality of city life. Embodying the best of the artist’s unique style of composition, color, light and atmosphere, Conversation on the Avenue is among Hassam’s finest Impressionist depictions of the fashionable thoroughfares of Golden Age New York.
As the first American artist to gain renown as a painter of urban landscapes, Hassam's first encounter with city life was in Boston. In 1884, Hassam and his new wife Maude moved to an apartment on Columbus Avenue near Back Bay. Exploring Boston's fashionable West End by the Charles River inspired the artist 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) Two years later in 1886, the couple traveled to Paris, where they would remain for the next three years. During this time, Hassam was part of a host of American artists seeking to immerse themselves in the ways of French Impressionism. When he did not find his experiences at the Académie Julian fruitful, Hassam turned to the streets and boulevards of Paris and once again learned his most important artistic lessons from observing city life. He moved on from the dark, Tonalist style of his early Boston works and began to use the bright light, color and short brushstrokes of the Impressionists, a style which he would develop further over the rest of his career.
Recognizing the prominence of New York as an international art center, Hassam relocated there in the winter of 1889. The artist first settled into a studio at 95 Fifth Avenue at Seventeenth Street, before moving in 1892 to the Chelsea Hotel at 22 West Twenty-third Street. He was quickly enthralled by the cultural vigor and cosmopolitan airs of his new home, telling an interviewer, "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, et al., American Impressionism and Realism, New York, 1994, p. 179) Hassam's passion for capturing the urbanscapes that surrounded him found direct expression in the works he produced, and critics came to associate him with New York, hailing 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, G. Torrey, "Childe Hassam," Art Interchange, vol. 34, May 1895, p. 133)
Conversation on the Avenue epitomizes this description of Hassam’s New York works, capturing the spirited activity on the city streets with unmatched vibrancy. Behind the central group of fashionable women, the life of the city teems with horse-drawn carriages and other pedestrians visible in the background. Executed in a bright, Impressionist palette with a steady yet broken brushstroke, the scene is infused with a palpable rhythm and energy that echoes the fast-paced beat of the city. Here, Hassam composes the scene to perfectly capture the ambience of a moment of lingering conversation in the middle of a busy concourse. The artist explained of his compositional methods, "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 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," Art Amateur, vol. 27, October 1892, p. 117) As seen in the present work, “Hassam’s escapist celebrations of New York highlight the most pleasing elements of attractive neighborhoods and their refined residents and convey the optimistic tone of contemporary accounts of the city’s growth and energy.” (H.B. Weinberg, “Hassam in New York, 1889-1896,” in Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, New York, 2004, p. 92)
Critical to this sense of setting in Conversation on the Avenue is Hassam’s attention to the fashion of New York’s high society. Hassam often executed quick sketches while seated in a cab or standing on a street in order to accurately capture his subjects. He particularly focused on vignettes of the refined upper-middle class, clad in stylish dress and engaged in leisurely activities. H. Barbara Weinberg explains, “In New York’s bustling urban spectacle Hassam found the grand thoroughfares, parks, churches, cabs, and other subjects of the sort that had interested him in Paris. Thus the slender young New Yorkers in bright stylish dresses he chose to paint—for example the trio in Conversation on the Avenue—echo the charming girls he had depicted in the French capital at the same time they illustrate his claim that ‘New York women are sometimes the finest-dressed women in the world.’” (“Hassam in New York, 1889-1896,” p. 92) In Conversation on the Avenue, the three central figures are indeed garbed in the latest, extravagant fashions of the day, detailed down to their fluttering hems and collars and embellished hats. Even the figures in the background wear costumes with decorative ribbons and flounces that capture the aesthetic of the era.
Yet, Hassam balances this attention to cultural detail with an Impressionist appreciation for the impact of light and atmosphere on how a scene truly appears in experience. Discussing the importance of “the ability to recreate the way people actually looked at and experienced the world,” Hassam declared, “Good art is, first of all, true. If you looked down a street and saw at one glance a moving throng of people, say fifty or one hundred feet away, it would not be true that you would see the details of their features or dress. Any one who paints a scene of that sort, and gives you such details, is not painting from the impression he gets on the spot, but from preconceived ideas he has formed from sketching studio models and figures near at hand. Such a man is an analyst, not an artist.’” (as quoted in Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, 1994, p. 74) As such, in Conversation on the Avenue, Hassam’s broken brushwork in a jewel-like palette suggests rather than states the exact details of the scene, adding to the sense of movement on the avenue and emphasizing the atmospheric effect of a light-filled day.
Conversation on the Avenue includes all of the hallmarks of Hassam's celebrated works from the 1890s. Reflecting his fascination with his urban surroundings and the people that he encountered, and demonstrating his growing ingenuity with Impressionist technique, in Conversation on the Avenue Hassam pays homage to the city and captures the unique, vibrant spirit of fin-de-siècle New York.