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Columbus, Ohio USA

Art: Elizabeth Ann James, Columnist
May 2006
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Columbus Museum of Art
American Impressionist Artist Childe Hassam

“American Impressionism: Variations on a Theme,” and “Alice Schille: An Independent Spirit,” featuring the turn-0f-the-century Columbus watercolorist, will close at the Columbus Museum of Art on June 4, 2006. These two exhibits are beautiful, and they are definitely “don’t misses.” Although these compatible shows are about impressionism, each includes a wide variety of subjects and modes. Sophisticated art lovers as well as novices will enjoy a leisurely stroll through the galleries.

Childe Hassam, Rainy Day, New York, ca. 1889. Oil on canvas.

Austerity can be beautiful
Calvary Church in the Snow, an oil on canvas, 22 x 18 inches, was painted in 1893 by major American impressionist artist Childe Hassam. Seventy-one years after his death, Hassam’s paintings maintain a five-star reputation in the international art world.

The peaked roofs on Calvary Church resemble snow-buried pines. The longest roof blends into the winter sky. White-gray strokes dance on the wind. Falling snow becomes blossoms on two bare trees.

Sketchily painted, tiny people in thick coats, lean into gusts, struggle up a white embankment. One small hansom cab is visible. Hassam always knows how to direct our eye: each object or figure is exactly where it should be.

We know which direction the wind blows because of the flowing white strokes. They’re thicker at the top, like torn paper. Get up close and personal: The church walls, spires, and pinnacles blend with the winter storm. Calvary may be a graystone church, it may be brick, but that doesn’t matter because of the snow. If you back away, the strokes congeal, and in 1893 Calvary Church appears – stalwart yet prestigious, like the artist himself. Weather and light have become powerful backstage participants. Hassam once said, “My prime source, my inspiration, has been nature.”

The artist, Childe Hassam (1859-1935) born Frederick Childe Hassam, possesses a keen winter eye. He’s a New Englander with roots in a revolutionary past. And he’s the master of precipitation. His father’s name, Hassam, suggests mysterious Middle East origins, likely Syrian. His mother Rose bears the esteemed New England maiden name, Hawthorne.
There are ten works by Childe Hassam in the Columbus Art Museum’s American Impressionism show.

Early Evening, Union Square, is an oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches. It was painted in 1902 – you can tell by the black hobbled skirts on the women, by the black hats and long black coats on the men. The strolling figures, the bare trees, the lamp posts and the hansom cabs form a kind of triangle enhanced by three halos of lamplight. Most of the strollers are traveling away from us and toward a long bar of rosy light which forms a horizon line. The lights come from dwellings, offices, perhaps a hidden skating rink, wherever the action is. No matter. Early Evening, Union Square presents a moment frozen in time. We recognize it without being there.

Winter, Midnight, 1894, is another “triangle” painting,” one which is more loosely painted than Early Evening. This includes brushy cabs and a large orange lamp halo. Hassam often painted from cabs. He wrote “I set up my canvas or wooden panel on the little seat in front of me. . . There is no end of material in the cabbies.”

In Rainy Day, New York (1889), a sweet paper doll of a woman wears an elaborate hat and a vanilla frock with leg-of-mutton sleeves and tiny galoshes, in the rain. Her umbrella handle is as thin as a pipe cleaner, but her big umbrella is bluer than midnight. Small aureoles, reflections, float in undefined shop windows. Poised at the left, making her entrance, our heroine tugs at her long skirt and we hear the flounces rustle. Her unseen friend, Childe Hassam, master of precipitation, watches, from somewhere.

Once an impressionist, always an impressionist
Childe Hassam studied and worked with the impressionists in France. Yet, his subjects are, on the whole, recognizably American. His sharp-angled cityscapes manage evanescence. Like his literary compatriot Henry James, Hassam can blow you away with refinement and rectitude. Actually, James became an ex patriot in London, while Hassam traveled abroad widely but remained a proud U.S. citizen and spent most of his time in New York City and New England. He painted a blurred panoply of U.S. flags hanging in New York City over Fifth Avenue in Avenue in The Rain (1917) during the last days of World War I.

The master French impressionist Claude Monet was definitely an influence on Hassam. Yet, Monet’s expressions of flowers and women are luscious, intimate. Hassam’s paintings of women and flowers are tender, respectfully distant, loving. His rocky coves and seascapes tend toward bleakness. Hassam understood how sunlight worked behind the scenes, how we humans are very small inside nature. His sunbaked wildflowers seem to ripple underwater.

On a crisp backlit day in 1890, Childe Hassam painted one of his series, Poppies, Isle of Shoals. For this work, he used pastels, and the effect is painterly. The invisible sun sends light into a dust blue sky which meets the bright deep blue of the waters, dividing the painting almost in half lengthwise. This slice of shore exits off the coast of New Hampshire where on Appledore Island the poet-artisan Celia Thaxter frequently hosted Hassam, his wife Maude, and many notable writers, artists, and musicians.

The poppies are gorgeous, yet a tad scraggly. They’re wild poppies, and they cluster together like baby rabbits on the bright shoregrass toward the viewer. A few distant hollyhocks stand attention, upper right. A stand of brave red hollyhocks frame the painting on the left. A spindly sunflower sways off center. The wild poppies, replete with white and yellow splotches and strokes, continue to lean ever so slightly to the left, which may be the west, “where the fishing is the best.” (Yes, the socially prominent Hassam was a golfer, a ball player, and fisherman.)

The exhibit of this poppies painting, and some other Hassam works, was made possible by the distinguished Keny Galleries based in German Village (since 1980). Keny Galleries does much for the living tradition of painting – in Ohio, the United States, and internationally. More than a few paintings were made available to the current impressionist exhibit through the efforts of co-owners Tim and Jim Keny.

Hassam’s watercolor Woman Reading, Appledore Island (1893) presents the sun as an unseen player. The dunes, rather the large rocks, have been simply, effectively, rendered; they blaze white in the sun. The sea-gray sky, a jagged strip, and the rocky embankment make a piece, coalescing, meeting without wrinkle. This bright day must be cool because our heroine, a lovely woman, wears a white tamoshanter,
a crisp white blouse, a full navy skirt with jacket, and a flouncy navy cravat.

She’s a debutante at the shore. A few red curls show under the tam. Her piquant face is half hidden because she’s looking down at a big book with a bright green cover – a Henry James novel, of course. As I listened to visitors, it seemed that Woman Reading is one of the most popular paintings in the show. You can read about Celia Thaxter and Childe Hassam at Appledore Island in Childe Hassam, An Island Garden Revisited by David Curry.

There are 74 paintings in the “American Impressionism” show, and the variety in subject and style is marvelous. Hassam’s works are but ten among the marvels. I showcased Childe Hassam because of his international esteem and because many readers are already familiar with the marvelous, democratic, George Bellows, for example, who “rose up among Methodists and Republicans in Columbus, Ohio.”
They also recognize the unsinkable Alice Schille who lives through current memory and through her versatile, high-energy paintings. She deserves her own article.

They recognize the popular Mary Cassatt; her images of socialites and children glimmer on notebooks and handbags. Yes, they’ve met those darkling champions, John Singer Sargent and James Whistler, with their own sunlight and shadows, their own personages, their distinctive rainy days. Long may they reign.

I would like to gather up Summer Roses, Laura Coombs Hill’s pastel on paper. I would like to look down on the jubilant night Times Square, Armistice Day, November 11, 1918 painted in oils by Theodore Butler. I would wish that the War to End All Wars had truly ended.

I would like to step into the big sun-drenched oil on canvas, Le Cage Ensoleilee (The Bird Cage) by Richard E. Miller. I can close my eyes and see the celestial green of the garden, the open latticed sunroom, the brightness, the shadows, and the nearly invisible bird. The demure hostess, her strapless frock with its bright red shawl. Her fingers on the ethereal cage. The teapot and the daisies. The tiny red geraniums outdoors. I’d like to step into that garden and I’d like to stay there a long, long time.

The Columbus Museum of Art is at 480 East Broad Street. For 24 hour information call 614–221–4848 or log on to

Yellow Brick Road Travels
If you stopped by Camelot Cellars in April to see Kim Elliott’s Our Lady of Lake Michigan and Follow the Yellow Brick Road (mentioned in my April 2006 article), you were disappointed. The two paintings were gone! They had been juried into the Dimensions 2006 exhibit as curated by Brooke Anderson, Director of the Contemporary Center of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Congratulations, Kim!

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