Childe Hassam, a successful young book and magazine illustrator, made his first trip abroad in 1883, disembarking in Great Britain then making a wide sweep through France, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. The sheaf of European subjects he brought back became the basis for an exhibition of his watercolors at Boston’s Williams & Everett Gallery in 1884.1 That same year, Hassam married Kathleen Maude Doan and moved to an apartment building on Columbus Avenue in the recently developed Back Bay area of Boston.2 His interest in his new surroundings was revealed in 1885, when he submitted watercolors with titles such as In the Public Garden and Springtime in the City to exhibitions in Boston.3 Keen to establish his American reputation as a painter, Hassam selected glimpses of modern life to attract the attention of critics, not only through location but through refined technique and finish.4
As an illustrator, Hassam had become an astute observer of the world around him, equally capable of capturing effects of nature as representing women in fashionable attire. Both these elements are included in Woman and Mastiff in the Boston Public Garden, a watercolor whose urban immediacy is enhanced by an audacious canine presence. The young woman has a firm hold on the collar of her trusty companion as they pause and gaze upward, as if fixed on a bird beyond the range of the composition. While the model’s pose might have originated in the studio, the inclusion of the dog appears fresh and original, suggesting the inspiration of Velasquez, whose paintings of mastiffs Hassam could have seen at the Prado.5 During the winter Hassam often transcribed nature from his window or from inside a carriage, but in spring and summer he could comfortably work outdoors, openly observing city life and abandoning a palette of grays and russets for the close hue contrasts of blues and greens.6 The accuracy of the park’s topography, the hazy foliage below the rooftops on Beacon Hill, and the activity of the gardener who transplants a flowerbed attest to Hassam’s direct observation of this setting.
The strolling female figure was an important trope for painters of modern life, both in Paris and in Boston, and appealed to collectors;7 Hassam shared that interest and emphasized the respectability of his city’s parks. In 1885 he made a series of illustrations for A New Departure for Girls, a book by the popular author Margaret Sidney.8 In this inspirational novel, the protagonist sets out to seek work and finds herself on a path that curves around the lagoon in the Public Garden. (Fig. 1) “A Garden in the city’s midst!” she exclaims, describing it as a place more energizing than rural nature—still and peaceful but “responding to healthy longings for activity.”9 As in RISD’s watercolor, this view shows the garden’s suspension bridge in the background, but the stroller’s excursion takes place on the opposite side of the lagoon, with the clock tower of the old Providence-Boston train station prominent against the sky. A skilled “black-and-white man,” Hassam most likely made this version as a monochromatic painting that in turn would have been cut onto a wooden block by professional line engravers.10
Hassam’s ability to interpret the atmospheric effects of nature is perhaps most evident in the many paintings he made of the rocky coves of the Isles of Shoals, located off the coast of New Hampshire’s border with Maine. Through his friendship with the poet Celia Thaxter, Hassam became a frequent summer visitor to the island of Appledore, where Thaxter’s home served as a gathering place for artists.11 Around 1888 Hassam built a studio on Appledore, and in the ensuing summers applied his brush to recreating impressions of the flowers that filled Thaxter’s gardens and home.12 His noteworthy collaboration with Thaxter, an illustrated book entitled An Island Garden, appeared in 1894, the year of the writer’s death. The heightened optical perception and skill apparent in his watercolors for the book revealed an intense and personal awareness of nature that flourished in this environment. When he returned to Appledore in the late 1890s, he brought his maturity and concentration to a study of the island’s more abstract geological beauty, and initiated a series of paintings of its coastal ledges and inlets. Sketching on site, Hassam drew Diamond Cove, Appledore on July 23, 1907, from a spot on the southwest side of the island where he also painted in oil.13 He made the sketch in black pencil and colored chalks on the inside of a stiff paper folder bearing the monogram and address of Augustus H. Tennis of New York City.14 An oil painting of this view, entitled Isles of Shoals, was also completed in 1907.15
In graphite and black chalk, Hassam mapped out the drawing’s composition, devising a reverse S-curve to lead the eye from the transparent waters of the cove to the rugged contours of the cliffs. He sketched the cliff walls and recesses with a close up-and-down stroke, connecting them with a line that concludes in an anchoring scribble at lower left. The rocky mass ascends to the top of the sheet where it is intersected by a sliver of the mainland, just visible on horizon. Allowing the buff color of the paper to suggest the earthy tints of the rocks, Hassam applied a palette of blues and yellow-greens to represent the lively movement of light on the water and the growth of algae on the cliffs. He used white chalk to heighten the reflected brilliance of their rocky surfaces and to pick out stones in the shallow water near the shore. A comparison of Diamond Cove, Appledore, with the related oil painting of this site reveals Hassam’s full grasp of his subject in its preliminary stages. The drawing contains the complete armature for the larger composition, from the slender ribbon of sky to the foreground’s rocky perch. On Appledore Hassam drew from life, recreating—even in a quick sketch—the visual experiences that were among the richest and most meaningful of his career.
Curator of Painting and Sculpture
- 1Hassam showed 67 watercolors of European subjects in the 1884 exhibition Water Colors by Hassam, held at Williams & Everett Gallery, Boston. The complete checklist of titles is included in the appendix “Exhibitions in Hassam’s Lifetime” in H. Barbara Weinberg’s Childe Hassam, American Impressionist (New York, New Haven, and London: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2004).
- 2Hassam’s discovery of urban Boston is discussed by Erica E. Hirshler in “Childe Hassam: At Dusk, Boston Common at Twilight” (Boston: MFA Publications, 2015). Hassam’s Boston paintings are also discussed by Stephanie L. Herdrich, “Hassam in Boston, 1859–1886,” in Weinberg, 2004, 29–51; and by Jennifer A. Martin Bienenstock, “Childe Hassam’s Early Boston Cityscapes,” Arts Magazine 55 (Nov. 1980), 168–171.
- 3 In the Public Garden was exhibited at the Boston Art Club, 32nd Exhibition, Water Colors, Black and White Drawings, and Sculpture, April 11–May 2, 1885, no. 129. Springtime in the City was shown at the Boston Water-Color Society, 1st Exhibition, from December 1, 1885, no. 1. Neither watercolor has been indisputably identified with a known work, leaving open the possibility that one of these titles might refer to RISD’s painting.
- 4See, for example, the large watercolor on paper The Public Garden (Boston Common), 1885, Slavin Collection, fig. 41 in Weinberg, 2004, 47. On page 16 of Childe Hassam: American Impressionist (Munich and New York: Prestel-Verlag, 1994), Ulrich W. Hiesinger notes the improvement of Hassam’s figural style after 1883, when he took life painting classes at the Boston Art Club. One of his instructors there, the Italian painter Tommaso Juglaris, had trained in Paris with Jean-Leon Gerome and Alexandre Cabanel.
- 5Velasquez’s importance to 19th-century European and American artists is widely acknowledged. Las Meniñas (1656), in which a mastiff is featured, would have been a highlight of Hassam’s 1883 visit to the Prado. He would also have seen a painting of a dwarf with a mastiff that was then considered to be a work by Velazquez, and was copied by numerous artists, including John Singer Sargent.
- 6Hassam described sketching his early street scenes from his window or from inside a cab in an interview with A. E. Ives, “Talks with Artists: Mr. Childe Hassam on Painting Street Scenes,” Art Amateur 27 (Oct. 1892), 116–17.
- 7By the late 1870s, this subject was already a particular preference of American collectors of paintings by Giuseppe De Nittis, Jean Beraud, Giovanni Boldini, and Jean-Francois Raffaelli.
- 8Margaret Sidney (Mrs. Harriet Mulford Stone Lothrop), A New Departure for Girls (Boston: D. Lothrop and Co., 1886).
- 9Sidney, 1886, 47–48.
- 10 Illustrators who provided pen-and-ink drawings and monochromatic paintings to publishers were called “black-and-white men.” Their images were then cut into hardwood printing blocks by expert line men who often added their names to the artist’s signature. John Schoelch and George L. Cowee engraved the blocks for A New Departure for Girls.
- 11Hassam’s 1884 drawing of figures on a sandy beach was published as a woodcut illustration for Thaxter’s 1886 collection of poems, Idyls and Pastorals. Although the date of his first visit to Appledore is not certain, his friendship with Thaxter began in the early 1880s. See Curry, 1990, 33 and 195, n. 62.
- 12David Park Curry thoughtfully examines Hassam’s seascapes in the chapter “The Rocks of Appledore,” in Curry, 1990, 115–89. He dates the construction of Hassam’s studio to ca. 1888, relating it to the flurry of construction undertaken by Thaxter’s family, the Laightons, who were owners of the Appledore House hotel (Curry, 1990, 38). After a period of absence in the late 1890s, Hassam returned to Appledore regularly until around 1916.
- 13Curry specifies the location of Diamond Cove (1990, 162) and illustrates the RISD drawing (pl. 78).
- 14The monogram appears as “AHT” above “Augustus H. Tennis / 47 East Nineteenth Street / New York.” Tennis was an agent for the Howe Machine Company, and the folder may have housed pages of a trade catalogue. It originally bore a sticker for a card and millboard manufacturer: E. H. & A. C. Friedrichs Co. 169 W. 57th Street N.Y. The impression of the monogram is visible in the cliffs at the left of the drawing. The vertical crease of the booklet cover, which is pricked where it had been sewn, is also evident. Hassam trimmed the left edge of the opened cover, so the crease does not fall at the center of the composition.
- 15See Curry, pl. 79, Isles of Shoals, 1907, oil on canvas, 26 x 31 in., Portland Art Museum, Oregon Art Institute. A related painting, dated the following year, is reproduced in Curry, pl. 80, Diamond Cove, Isles of Shoals, 1908, oil on panel, 25 x 30 in., Gallery of Art, Washington University, St. Louis.