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PRINT May 2004

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Childe Hassam

The nineteenth-century novelist William Dean Howells identified an abiding concern in American literature for the “more smiling aspects of life.” A similar interest can be found in the Impressionist paintings of American Childe Hassam (1859–1935). A contemporary of Howells, this Massachusetts-born artist recorded a version of modernity that was insistently untroubled. Flooding his depictions of bustling Parisian and New York streets, distant skylines, and flowering gardens with direct sunshine or light resplendently refracted through rain or snow, Hassam imbued the daily life of his times with a pictorial and painterly magic that continues to appeal to the senses. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective (June 10–September 12), the artist’s first in more than thirty years, features 120 oils, watercolors, and pastels, as well as some twenty-five prints, organized by H. Barbara Weinberg, the Met’s Alica Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture. This generous selection from the artist’s output provides viewers ample opportunity to bask in—or, if so minded, critically reject—his selective and seductive vision of modern America.

Artistically progressive early in his career (he was among the first to import the techniques of French Impressionism to the US), Hassam became increasingly conservative around the turn of the century, disdaining new art movements (he was outraged by what he saw at the 1913 Armory Show) and their tendency toward progressive politics. Long after Impressionism itself had ceased to have avant-garde cachet, he capitalized on what by then had become a safe, even venerable, stylistic choice in order to celebrate both America’s military involvement in World War I (Fifth Avenue grandly ornamented with waving American and Allied flags) and its WASP heritage (white, steeple-topped New England churches radiating classical order and harmony in a natural paradise of vividly hued splendor).

Whatever ideological functions Hassam’s art may have served in its own time—or in ours—and however facile and imitative much of it may appear to be, he was nevertheless a technically brilliant painter. Throughout a five-decade career, he managed to produce some of the most intriguing and evocative images we have of life in the United States at the dawn of the urban age.

David M. Lubin