- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

What confronts us, oddly enough, on entering the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Portraits of Places: The Prints of Childe Hassam, an American Impressionist” isn’t a print at all. Instead, it’s a huge, light-filled painting mounted by exhibit curator Erik Denker directly opposite the gallery entry.

Actually, placement of “The New York Window” (1912) was not a misfit: Hassam’s aims in painting and prints were the same: to capture impressionism’s light and color, whether with oil pigments or the etcher’s and lithographer’s print tools. The curator demonstrates how successfully and expressively Hassam (1859-1935) did this in the 62-work show made possible by the generous gifts the painter’s widow made to the Corcoran after his death.

The prolific artist created more than 400 prints (out of a total output of 4,000 works), a print production then large enough to catch the attention of American collectors. Whether Hassam worked with oil pigment, watercolor, gouache, charcoal, pencil, Chinese white or prints, he usually transmitted a luminous joy and contentment with the world around him.

“New York Window” is flanked by related prints such as “The Writing Desk” (1915) and the vertically-etched “Marie at the Window” (1923). In the latter, the artist portrayed an attractive young woman seated at a tall window. Light falls from the outside across her shawled shoulders, arms and lap, defining the diaphanous quality of her clothes. It also depicts the vertically-falling sheer curtains and the grid divisions of the windows. Hassam brushed in the scene with textured blues, grays and whites to create a soft, serene, almost fairytale-like ambience; yet, it’s firmly rooted in reality through its grid structuring.

If you think the subjects are the woman and window, think again. The artist placed her face in shadow and made the window seat ambiguous. The play of light and shadow is the real subject, as it is in the adjacent prints. Hassam infused the prints with a soft poetry similar to that of the painting. Like “New York Window,” they are atmospheric patternings of women near windows. In the vertically-etched “Marie at the Window,” the woman twists around to open a pleated, transparent curtain, while Hassam’s wife leans into the desk for an almost profile view in “The Writing Desk.”

From a distinguished New England family in Dorchester, Mass., Hassam apprenticed to a Boston wood engraver, where he rose to staff artist. He shortened his given name of Frederick Childe Hassam by dropping Frederick and keeping Childe Hassam, perhaps in reference to Byron’s romantic wanderer, Childe Harold

He launched his career by becoming a free-lance illustrator, sending drawings to Harper’s, Scribner’s and The Century . He also studied drawing and painting at night. At age 24, in 1883, he was finally able to make the grand tour of Europe, where he first saw the art of J.M.W. Turner , the great British landscapist and master of light. Turner would be a lifelong influence on both Hassam’s paintings and prints. From 1886 to 1889 Hassam lived in Paris, where he soaked up French impressionism and fused it with American traditions on his return home.

The artist had already achieved the title of America’s greatest impressionist painter when he began making black-and-white prints around 1915 while in his mid-50s. Like other important painter/printmakers of his generation such as John Twachtman and Julian Alden Weir , Hassam expressed ambivalence toward America’s changing landscapes and rapidly industrializing cities. He would become crucial to the medium’s rebirth in the United States. (At the end of the previous century, collectors had turned from etchings by American printmakers to buying prints by Europeans and American expatriates like Whistler and Mary Cassatt.)

Hassam next turned, in 1917, to lithography, helping to restore that medium to a respected position in printmaking. He even invented “lithotint” , a more watery version of lithography, illustrated in the rich, aqueous blacks and painterliness of interiors such as “The Broad Curtain.”

By the time Hassam turned to prints, he had moved beyond impressionism in his paintings to a postimpressionist emphasis on pure color, simplified compositions and elongated brushwork. The short, punctuated stabs of his etching needles essentially simulated the earlier jabbed, short hits of the brush. Both became more fluid.

Though originally a New Englander, Hassam is best remembered in both paintings and prints for his “portraits” of New York City. Mr. Denker effectively “parades” the prints together in the exhibit, beginning with the frenetic “Fifth Avenue, Noon” (1916), Hassam’s best known print, and ending with his darker, almost foreboding “New York Skyline” lithographs.

Hassam’s “Flag” series was his most famous and revealed an appreciation for the American flag that was as much patriotic as aesthetic. He had first seen French impressionists’ festive flags waving in city streets 40 years earlier. He initially painted a half-dozen or more cityscapes with clusters of Stars and Stripes embellishing the facades. When the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917, he made more flag paintings. He finally created some 30 showing the decorated parade route of Fifth Avenue and its adjacent blocks.

Hassam simultaneously created flag prints such as the exhibit’s “The Flag,” “Avenue of the Allies,” “New York Bouquet” and “Lafayette Street,” all from around 1917, using the banners to structure the works. Later, he emphasized abstract design, patterning, silhouettes, asymmetry and flattening of space in the paintings. The exhibit’s “Service Flag,” with a flag hung outside the door of a home, signaled a boy was away fighting. He also drew warships passing through the harbor and was jailed for what was considered a security violation for “Camouflage,” his sketch of a camouflaged ship. At the bottom, next to his signature, he wrote, “arrested for this.”

Wealthy and successful, Hassam made East Hampton, Long Island, his summer residence in 1919, and some of his most evocative prints come from the town. In 1921, he etched the appealing “Home Sweet Home Cottage, Easthampton” , a picture of composer Henry R. Bishop’s boyhood home that inspired the popular song.

“I began my career in the graphic arts, and I’m ending in the graphic arts,” he said near the end of his life, emphasizing how important prints had been to him.

If Hassam’s paintings are operas, then prints are his chamber music. Reflecting our veneration of paintings over graphics, his paintings sell in the $8 million range, the prints for $25,000 (paid at auction a few years ago for “The Writing Desk”).

But don’t be deceived by the exhibit’s modesty. Careful attention is abundantly repaid.

WHAT: “Portraits of Places: Prints of Childe Hassam, An American Impressionist.”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays, closed Tuesdays, through Aug. 4

TICKETS: $5 adults, $8 families, $3 seniors and member guests, $1 for students with valid ID

PHONE: 202/639-1700

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