Born on 17 October 1859, Frederick Childe Hassam was a pioneering American Impressionist painter. He brought French Impressionism to the USA alongside leading artists such as John Henry Twachtman, William Merritt Chase, and Mary Cassatt. As a result, the course of American art changed forever.
Frederick Childe Hassam grew up in the historic Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. The family lived on Olney Street, Meeting House Hill.
Hassam’s father (Frederick Fitch Hassam) worked as a cutlery businessperson. He also enjoyed a diverse collection of art and antiques. Hassam’s mother (Rosa Delia Hawthorne) shared ancestry with the famed American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Due to his dark skin tone, many compatriots joked that Hassam had middle eastern descent. He enjoyed these rumors and played on them throughout his life.
From the mid-1880s onwards, Hassam painted an Islamic crescent moon next to his signature. He also took the nickname “Muley” (derived from the Arabic “Mawla” meaning “master”).
Hassam proved his artistic talents at an early age. He produced watercolor paintings at school, also excelling in boxing. However, a major fire swept through Boston in November 1872, destroying Hassam’s father’s business.
Frederick Childe consequently left school to support his family. He secured a job with Little Brown & Company (publishers). During this time, Hassam studied wood engraving. Working with a respected engraver (George Johnson), he honed his skills and created many commercial newspaper engravings.
Hassam also started painting properly around this time. Continuing trends from his school days, he produced watercolor artworks of outdoor scenes.
From 1879 onwards, Hassam created his first oil paintings.
Childe Hassam worked all over the USA and France. In 1882, he worked as a freelance illustrator in Boston. As part of this, Hassam supplied illustrations for the likes of Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s Monthly and attended drawing classes at the Boston Art Club and the Lowell Institute.
Hassam launched his first exhibition of watercolors in 1883 (at the Everett Gallery in Boston). He also dropped his first name Frederick during this time.
In the summer of 1883, along with Edmund Garrett, Hassam embarked on a “study trip” to Europe. Traveling through the UK, France, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, the two men studied Old Master paintings and countryside scenes.
Hassam found the British artist J.M.W. Turner’s paintings awe-inspiring. During this trip, he worked on hundreds of watercolors, showing them back in Boston in 1884.
As well as JMW Turner’s light-filled masterpieces, Hassam also found William Morris Hunt particularly inspiring. He loved Hunt’s approach to painting purely from nature.
Hassam also respected contemporary French landscape painting, especially how it combined Impressionist en Plein air styles with traditional Neo-Classicism. The famed French landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was particularly inspiring.
Hassam married Kathleen Maude (a family friend) in 1884 and started painting cityscapes. Works such as Boston Common at Twilight and Rainy-Day Columbus Avenue (painted 1885) represent this shift to urban subjects.
In these paintings, Hassam abandoned the traditional, classical landscapes of Corot. Instead, Hassam moved towards Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Speaking to his American peers, Gérôme said to “forget the beaux-arts” and instead depict the “intense life” of contemporary USA. He claimed the Brooklyn Bridge was equally worthy as the Colosseum of Rome, and modern America was equivalent to antiquity.
Hassam continued Gérôme’s revolutionary “every day” approach in Boston before moving back to Paris in 1886. He lived in Paris with his wife, renting an apartment and studio in the city’s center. The pair socialized with Parisian artistic circles, and Hassam studied at the prestigious Académie Julian.
Finding the strict teaching “the personification of routine” and claiming it “crushes all originality,” Hassam soon left, however. After that, he painted Parisian scenes, including two well-known versions of Grand Prix Day (1887).
Still inspired by his Impressionist French counterparts, Hassam’s work also revolutionized American Impressionism back home.
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