Childe Hassam embraced France and Impressionism, but it is his American paintings that show his true roots, says Kathleen Burnside

Confident in personality, robust in appearance and exceptionally vigorous in artistic output during his long lifetime, Childe Hassam (1859-1935) was perhaps the most highly successful exponent of American Impressionist painting in America. During his career he was lauded for his "astonishing" command of medium, "equally at home in oils, watercolors and pastels", as one critic in The New York Times wrote in 1890. And his popularity remains. Collectors have continued to acquire his vivid impressions of American life, both in his lifetime and beyond.

Born in Dorcester, Massachusetts, Frederick Childe Hassam was the son of a prosperous Boston hardware merchant, although he had a more artistic ancestry: both Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Morris Hunt were distantly related. Hassam's early art training was as an apprentice to a wood engraver, and his early works were illustrations for books. He produced a group of freely washed, light-filled drawings of local pastoral landscapes that subsequently became the basis for his first one-man exhibition in 1882. Shortly thereafter, the artist dropped the use of his given name, Frederick, and was always to be known by the more dashing moniker of 'Childe'.

Hassam attended evening classes at the Boston Art Club and established a studio in the city in 1883. His early watercolors were supplanted in the mid-1880s by tonal paintings of Boston's city streets and parks, such as Rainy Day, Boston and Boston Common at Twilight. These canvases were typically set beneath the poetic atmosphere of a leaden gray sky. As a group, his early cityscapes earned Hassam attention in the press as "impressions, in the best sense", showing audacious "artistic grasp of fleeting effects". In this way, he became firmly identified with the urban genre.

Like so many aspiring American artists of his generation, Hassam went abroad. Late in 1886 he and his new wife, the former Kathleen Maud Doane, departed for Paris to study at the Academie Julian, an independent art school popular with Americans. His work of the next three years abroad reflects his growing awareness of the French Impressionists. He developed a style that consistently used broken brushwork and soon his palette became lighter and brighter in his oils, as can be seen in a work such as Le Jour du Grand Prix, a painting exhibited at the Paris Salon. His early critics in Boston had exhorted him "to come in out of the rain" and in France, Hassam began to emphasize the effects of sunlight upon the more picturesque aspects of Parisian life: Montmartre shops, street flower vendors, parks and private gardens.

It is commonly accepted that Hassam converted to Impressionism during his stay in Paris, but the truth is far less tidy. After all, his earliest watercolors – a group executed near Boston in 1882 – were perceived as plein-air impressions and he hadn't even arrived in France. However, there is no doubt that Hassam was influenced by many European art trends, some directly, many indirectly. In common with the French Impressionists, he generally used broken brushwork and advocated a depiction of modern life, but he often incorporated other techniques and forms of symbolism. Upon his return to America in 1889, Hassam settled in New York where he began to exhibit with major art organizations and align himself with other young American artists who had also embraced the influence of modern French painting. He continued to paint urban scenes, but now his subject was the 'Gilded Age of New York', the emerging international city. For Hassam the streets of New York were just as "interesting" as the "thoroughfares of the great French metropolis". He sought to capture this vitality in canvases depicting life along Fifth Avenue, activity in Union and Madison Squares, and strollers on the byways of Central Park.

During the summer months, Hassam would leave the city for more rural artistic retreats throughout New England. One of his most beloved spots was Appledore Island, one of the Isles of Shoals, about 10 miles off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The rugged beauty of the coastal rocks was softened by the lush flower garden cultivated by poet and innkeeper, Celia Thaxter, who attracted a lively salon of late 19th-century artistic and literary figures to her family's Appledore House. For more than 30 years, Hassam returned to the island, attracted by the cultural camaraderie, as well as the appeal of the light and sea-drenched coves. His impressionistic watercolors of Thaxter's cottage garden filled with poppies (such as The Garden in Its Glory) were used to illustrate Thaxter's fin-de-siècle book of prose poetry, An Island Garden (1894). Although Thaxter died in 1894 – and is memorialized in Hassam's splendid painting A Room of Flowers – he returned to the coastal retreat for two more decades. Turning away from the garden of his friend, he painted 'portraits' of the rocks and pools along the shoreline such as Land's End, Coast of Maine. Hassam set up his easel on the rocks and captured in paint all the colors of the Shoals geology, refracted by light and washed by pounding waves and strong tides. The spacious horizon looms beyond under a flat gray sky. A small sailboat can be seen navigating between Appledore and a neighboring isle, perhaps Smuttynose, an island with a rich pirate history.

The Isles of Shoals were but one summer destination for the peripatetic painter. Hassam was also drawn to other rural retreats frequented by American artists: Cos Cob and Old Lyme, Connecticut, Newport, Rhode Island and Gloucester, Massachusetts, among others.

Gloucester, an old fishing village north of Boston, along the Cape Ann peninsula, attracted artists from Winslow Homer to Ash Can artists such as John Sloan and William Glackens. Hassam visited Gloucester very early in his career – he even designed the masthead of the daily paper for the neighboring community, Marblehead. By 1890 he began to paint watercolors of the local harbor, sailing ships and village life, including a charming sketch of The Gloucester Trolley , which documents the electrification of the trolley line from the main depot to Rocky Neck in East Gloucester in 1890.

Hassam painted in Gloucester at various times during three decades. His first body of work was during the summers of 1894 to 96. The Gloucester Daily Times of 15 July 1895, noted that Hassam was "in residence" and we know that he completed about a dozen oils of the village during this summer, among which was East Gloucester, End of the Trolley Line. It is a view of Main Street in East Gloucester near the intersection of Rocky Neck Avenue, showing the end of the recently electrified local trolley. In the summer there were open cars with seats, running boards and guard rails. It was a hub of activity for a community once dominated by fishermen and now attractive to artists. Hassam was drawn not only to the rituals of village life, but to the handsome and solid old clapboard cottages depicted on the left in this canvas. In Hassam's rendition of East Gloucester, the summer sun is refracted in the blonde and bleached palette of the dusty street, framed by the simple forms of the small wooden houses. The bustle of midday pedestrian activity is communicated with brevity and grace. Although the scene is less densely populated than his urban cityscapes, the artist nonetheless shows the same interest in catching "the spirit, life... and poetry of figures in motion".

Hassam continued to find professional success in the 20th century. He took a fourth and final trip to Europe in 1910-11, where he executed, among other works, a depiction of the Bastille Day celebration in Paris: July 14th, Rue Daunou. In a sense, this French scene prefigures the artist's most well-known cycle of paintings: the Flag Series. These were done in New York from 1916 to 18, and captured the patriotic displays on Fifth Avenue surrounding the WWI efforts. These iconic American images have long been considered Hassam's finest late works.

Hassam had hoped to keep the works together in a permanent collection. Although this aspiration was not realized, many of the 20 canvases are now in major public collections. One, The Avenue in the Rain 1917, was given to the White House in 1963. It has been chosen to decorate the walls by both George Bush and Barack Obama and currently hangs in the Oval Office.

During this period, Hassam purchased an 18th-century shingle cottage in East Hampton, Long Island, then a farming community attractive to artists. His summer wanderings around New England were replaced by his permanent residence near the ocean. Hassam continued to paint local scenes until his death in 1935. Having achieved almost every honor and success an American artist might wish for, Hassam chose to leave all works remaining in his estate to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, to help fund the museum acquisition of works by young American and Canadian artists.

Kathleen Burnside is an art historian and manager of the Childe Hassam Catalog Raisonné Project.

Related auctions