Childe Hassam liked to paint without his shirt on, and sometimes beat his chest while at work. He was fun, energetic and self-assured, and when he started going to Florence Griswold’s house in Old Lyme, Conn., other artists followed.
Hassam called the Old Lyme artists colony ‘just the place for high thinking and low living.’ Archaelogists later found a stash of beer, wine and whiskey bottles beneath the ruins of his studio.
He had a dark complexion and heavy-lidded eyes, and many people mistook him for a Middle Easterner – a mistake he enjoyed promulgating. He took to painting an Islamic-looking moon next to his signature, which evolved into a slash.
Frederick Childe Hassam was born in the Dorchester section of Boston on Oct. 17, 1859. He was related to Nathaniel Hawthorne on his mother’s side.
As a boy, he once claimed, he could swim across Dorchester Bay and knock out any of the other boys with his fists. His father’s cutlery business was wiped out in the Great Boston Fire of 1872.
Despite an uncle’s offer to send him to Harvard, Hassam dropped out of high school at 17 and got a job at Little, Brown & Co. He later got worked as an engraver after studying wood engraving on the side.
In 1882 he became a freelance illustrator, while taking drawing classes at the Lowell Institute (a division of MIT) and at the Boston Art Club, He contributed illustrations to Harper’s and Scribner’s magazines.
In 1893, he had his first solo exhibition of watercolors. The next year, his friend Celia Thaxter convinced him to stop calling himself ‘Fred’ and use his middle name instead. Childe Hassam visited Thaxter at her summer salon on Appledore Island in the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. He often painted on the islands and illustrated her book, An Island Garden.
Unlike contemporary artists who painted historical subjects, Hassam and his circle painted what they saw. In an 1892 magazine interview, Hassam said,
Hitherto historical painting has been considered the highest branch of the art. A true historical painter, it seems to me, is one who paints the life he sees about him, and so makes a record of his own epoch.
He married Kathleen Maud Doane in 1882 and moved to Boston’s then-tony South End. He began painting Boston cityscapes – an unorthodox choice.
They moved to Paris in 1886 so Hassam could study figure painting. He rented Auguste Renoir’s former studio, which was littered with his unsold paintings. Hassam realized Renoir’s experiments in pure color and realized it was what he was trying to do himself.
The Hassams returned to America in 1889, settling in New York City. There, Hassam became the ‘painter of the avenue,’ taking his easel to the streets near a succession of studios he rented on or near Fifth Avenue. He knew how to market his work, and painted the wealthy people likely to buy his paintings.
In 1897, Hassam, Weir and Twachtman formed a group of contemporary artists from Boston and New York. Known as ‘The Ten,’ they exhibited together. Between 1898 and 1919, Hassam exhibited in every one of the group’s annual shows. Over his lifetime, he produced more than 2,000 paintings and 400 prints.
By 1913, when modernism came to New York at the Armory Show, Childe Hassam was no longer an artistic rebel. He pooh-poohed surrealists and cubists, calling them ‘art boobies.’ He and Weir in turn were called ‘the mammoth and mastodon of art.’
An outburst of patriotism during World War I inspired Hassam’s memorable flag paintings.
One, Flags, Fifth Avenue, was a favorite of socialite Brooke Astor. Her estranged son sold it from under her to a private collector though she intended to will it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1919, the Hassams moved to East Hampton on Long Island, where he continued to paint and to sell his paintings. Critics dismissed him, and he crankily responded by calling them dolts, asses and dullards.
Childe Hassam died on Aug. 27, 1935. For years he was considered one of the abandoned geniuses of American Impressionism. Collectors rediscovered him in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and his paintings sold for millions.
A critic named Elisabeth Luther Cary wrote, “Childe Hassam has gone and with him something irreplaceable has left American art. I know of no other painter with his power to make the world look convincingly joyous with its own joy, and this he seemed always able to do.”
If you enjoyed this story, you might like to read about another New England artist, Fidelia Bridges, here. This story was updated in 2022.