Childe Hassam's images of New York City from the 1890s are among the most poignant and brilliant examples of American Impressionism. The success of Hassam's urban views from the late nineteenth century is attributed to his love of observing the vitality of city life and the artist's unique style of composition, color, light and atmosphere.
Hassam recorded various locations throughout the city during this time, including a series of works celebrating Central Park. Central Park at the end of the 19th century was the grandest and most renowned public park in the nation. Located in the center of Manhattan, it spanned over eight hundred acres of rolling hills, meadows and forests dotted with ponds and lakes and dissected by miles of walking, equestrian and carriage paths. At its opening in the late 1850s, the park provided a much needed escape for an urban population that was suffering under the burden of rapid industrialization. Central Park achieved emblematic status and came to embody the nation's antidote for the encroaching modern world. Hassam's portrayal of this landmark, Central Park from circa 1890-92, illustrates the brilliance of American Impressionism and extols the beauty and sanctuary of this manmade oasis amidst the chaos of a changing world.
Hassam's urban experience began as early as 1885 in the city of Boston where he moved after his marriage to Kathleen Maude Doan. Exploring Boston's fashionable west end by the Charles River inspired Hassam to begin portraying modern city life. In 1886 Hassam moved to Paris for three years 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 was quickly enthralled by the cultural vitality and cosmopolitan aires 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." (H.B. Weinberg, D. Bolger and D.P. Curry, American Impressionism and Realism, New York, 1994, p. 179) 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." (W.H. Howe and G. Torrey, "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 222 West 23rd Street where he would reside for about a year. Lower Fifth Avenue had been in earlier years considered very fashionable, but by the time Hassam moved to this area it had transformed into a more commercial district. The city's extremely wealthy had migrated further uptown on Fifth Avenue near Central Park. Spanning from about Fiftieth Street to Eightieth Street, this area along the park was commonly referred to as "Millionaires' Row" with the construction throughout the 1870s and 1880s of great mansions and luxury apartment buildings. As one critic noted: "The fashionable life of the metropolis once had its center here [lower Fifth Avenue], and although the neighborhood still retains much of its old-time character, and nothing of natural beauty seems lacking to make it desirable as a residence, the tide of fashion has receded northward... ." (E. Idell Zeisloft, The New Metropolis, New York, 1899, p. 494, as quoted in W.H. Gerdts, Impressionist New York, New York, 1994, p. 46)
Hassam throughout the 1890s explored and painted areas in and around Fifth Avenue, one of the most famous and diverse thoroughfares in the country. One writer observed: "In the entire length Fifth Avenue is not one thing, but everything--a symbol, a compendium, a cross section of the national life... It is a study in progressive sociology with mansions and factories, libraries, museums, vacant lots, hospitals, parks and slums. While other streets have their own characters as well as length....Fifth Avenue alone has significance." (S. Strunsky, "The Lane That Has No Turning," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 131, September 1915, p. 490 as quoted in Impressionist New York, p. 45-46) Hassam devoted most of his paintings to bustling and buggy filled streets and squares, yet his images of public parks located in close proximity to Fifth Avenue compliment and complete the artist's vision of the city during this time. Central Park, the most famous of public parks, was the subject for some of the artist most acclaimed works. Central Park from circa 1890-92 is one such example.
In Central Park, Hassam found a subject worthy of his considerable artistic talent. 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 59th Street to 106th Street (later to 110th 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 country) 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 primary purpose of the Park is to provide the best practical means of healthful recreation for the inhabitants of the city, of all classes. It should present an aspect of spaciousness and tranquility with variety and intricacy of arrangement, thereby affording the most agreeable contrast to the confinement, bustle, and monotonous street-division of the city." (C.E. Beveridge and D. Schulyer, ed., Frederick Law Olmsted, "Creating Central Park, 1857-1861," vol. 3, The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Baltimore, Maryland, 1983, p. 212-213)
The park's construction was one of the most extensive public works projects 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. Over twenty thousand workers were employed to demolish numerous shanty towns and small villages containing churches and schools. The workers blasted out ridges dating back to the Ice Age, using gunpowder in excess of the amount employed at Gettysburg. They also moved over ten million cartloads of soil and transported half a million cubic yards of topsoil to the site to enrich the poor glacier earth. This allowed the planting of over four million trees representing 632 species, and 815 varieties of plants, vines and flowers. Incorporated into Olmsted's and Vaux's plan were various picturesque buildings, bridges, lakes, artificial ponds and fountains. In order to better control traffic of all kinds, the park design mapped out distinct and separate curvilinear carriage routes, pedestrian walks and equestrian paths.
Opened to the public in the winter of 1859, Central Park was used by over seven million people and quickly became a frequent topic of numerous articles, guide books, prints and photographs. Writers by the end of the nineteenth century hailed Central Park as one of the most important and beautiful assets of the country: "You may never have ridden down Potter's Row in London, nor along Champs Elysees in Paris, nor about the Corso in Rome: you may never have gone along the broad gay walks under the Rows of Linden in Berlin, nor roamed throughout the Prater in Vienna, nor listened to the music in the Stadt Garten at Buda Pesth; but if you have gone to Central Park here in New York on a bright morning of spring, summer or autumn you have missed nothing by not seeing those other places. For not in Hyde Park, the Thiergarten, the Prater nor in any of the show places of other capitals could have found more to delight you and make you glad that you are alive that you find here in the green stretches of meadow, the fresh foliage of the trees, the gay bloom of flowers and the clear notes of birds that make Central Park so pleasant a spot in the busy city." (fig. a) (A. Wakeley, "The Playground of the Metropolis," Munsey's Magazine 13, September 1895, p. 565.)
Hassam's Central Park depicts the often visited Conservatory Water, a manicured pond situated just off Fifth Avenue near Seventy-second Street (figs. b and c). Conservatory Water is a formal Neo-Renaissance concrete basin that was named for a conservatory that was planned to be built in this location, but was never erected. The artificial lake was used as a miniature model boat pond, an activity that was enjoyed primarily on weekends. Hassam in Central Park situates the viewer along the east side of the pond looking across to the northwest shore. The painting documents rambling paths, lush manicured lawns, and in the distance a quaint Victorian style cottage (no longer extant) nestled among towering trees and sprawling bushes.
Hassam's interest in parks dates back to his time in Boston, but more prominently to his short residence in Paris in the late 1880s. Hassam moved to Paris with the intent 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 studied at the Acadmie Julian though his experience at the school was neither favorable nor beneficial to his art. Working independently of the Acadmie, Hassam worked on his own, absorbing various tenets of Impressionism. Hassam consistently rejected the classification of Impressionist as 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) Hassam in a later interview with A.E. Ives 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) Hassam turned to the streets and boulevards of Paris for inspiration, but ventured to the quieter locales of the city's parks for new subjects to paint. There he observed amidst the quiet and manicured lush landscape finely dressed Parisians strolling along the promenades. Works such as Parc Monceaux (Private Collection, circa 1888-89) illustrate Hassam's earlier interest in the subject of parks and his unique painting techniques, important elements that would mature in his works executed in the following decade in New York.
Considered one of the most beautiful passages of the park, Conservatory Water and its immediate environs attracted many artists during the 1890s. Conservatory Water provided Hassam the subject matter with which he and his fellow Impressionists found continual fascination: leisurely activities of the refined and aristocratic in a picturesque setting. In the 1890s Central Park was enjoyed by a mixture of social classes who commonly escaped to the lush surroundings on Sundays and holidays. During the work week, however, the park was frequented typically by upper middle-class women and children who were seeking clean air, restful moments and healthful exercise amidst the rolling lawns, winding paths and elegant promenades of the great park (fig. f). Set against the picturesque backdrop of Conservatory Water, Hassam in Central Park populates the canvas with groupings of women and children, but focuses on an elegantly clad young well-to-do mother promenading with her finely garbed child and furry family companion (fig. d). Through his ingenious choice of location and selection of subjects, Hassam successfully captures on canvas an idyllic and quiet moment amidst the frantic urban environment of New York.
The scene which Hassam portrays in Central Park moves beyond a visual record of the leisurely activities of New York's elite, but through a deft handling of composition, brush stroke, color, light and atmosphere transforms into a serene and tranquil image. Hassam employs a steady yet broken brush stroke that infuses the work with a sense of graceful movement indicative of the gait of fashionably dressed women, or of the serpentine paths on which they follow. This sophisticated handling of paint combined with a jewel-like palette emphasizes Hassam's atmospheric effect of a light-filled day. In Central Park, Hassam depicts a moist spring day composed of rich greens, browns, and yellows. From this dominate color scheme emerges the contrasted brilliance of reds, blues and whites as seen in the figures' clothing, the flower in the central young woman's hat and the dress of the child. 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's compositional techniques in Central Park further underscores the impact of the work and its ability to maintain in a fleeting moment a feeling of calm within a city fraught with consternation and energy. Hassam, though he was committed to nature and an advocate of documenting real life experiences, found that it was necessary to be visually selective in his observations. In an interview in 1892 with A.E. Ives, 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) Unlike other artists who typically painted Conservatory Water with the prominent and stately buildings of Fifth Avenue in the background, Hassam literally chose to turn his back to these structures and focused on the interior of the park creating a pure urban pastoral. As a result, Hassam afforded himself the opportunity to portray the cultivated landscape of the park without the distractions of looming city structures. The formality of landscape is further emphasized by his balanced composition composed of a series of curvilinear shapes that are punctuated with strategically placed groupings of figures. The dominant curve of the pond is echoed in the various trees and shrubs in the distance and reflected in the placement of the groups of women and children who dot the walking path that meanders into the greenery beyond (fig. e). The building in the distance is the only manmade structure with hard straight edges, but it is cleverly hidden behind verdant branches. As a result Hassam crystallizes the women and children, subtle movements of vegetation, the shimmerings of the pond's reflection and changing sunlight, into an organic symmetry that infuses the work with a sense of timelessness and harmony.
Through Hassam's Impressionist gaze, the tranquility, serenity and importance of the nation's greatest public park is poignantly recorded in Hassam's Central Park. Central Park was, and remains today, a haven that affords inhabitants of New York an escape from the turmoil and oppression of the city. Hassam pays homage to the park's central mission in Central Park and creates an iconic image that embraces urbanism in its most beautiful and picturesque form.
This painting will be included in Stuart P. Feld's and Kathleen M. Burnside's forthcoming catalogue raisonn of the artist's work.
Oil on canvas
Signed and inscribed 'Childe Hassam N.Y.' (lower left)
New York, New Society of Artists, Second Annual Exhibition, November 1920, no. 59
New York, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., The Artist in the Park: A Benefit Exhibition for The Central Park Conservatory, April-May 1980, no. 50
New York, Jordan-Volpe Gallery, Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, May-July 1994
18 x 22in. (45.7 x 56.1cm.)
W.H. Gerdts, Impressionist New York, New York, 1994, p. 134, illus.
William F. Burt, Bronxville, New York.
Gift to the present owner from the above, 1947.