AMERICAN AND BRITISH PAINTING AROUND 1900
HASSAM, Childe (Dorchester, 1859 – East Hampton, 1935)
Paris Street Scene, Autumn
Oil sobre canvas, 33.5 x 46 cm
Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza
By 1885–1886 Hassam had established himself in Boston as a painter of urban views. While viewing the distant throngs of people from a second-story window, or by observing the more intimate cluster of pedestrians from the seat of a cab, Hassam portrayed the streets of Boston, capturing the subtle nuances of the life around him. His paintings were tonal images of the city enveloped in rain or mist, obscured by falling snow, or bathed in the waning glow of twilight. “The portrait of a city, you see,” he later wrote, “is in a way like the portrait of a person—the difficulty is to catch not only the superficial resemblance but the inner self. The spirit, that’s what counts, and one should strive to portray the soul of a city with the same care as the soul of a sitter”.
Hassam’s Boston views are remarkable not only for their atmospheric effects, but for their deep recession of space, produced by the rapidly converging lines of curbstones, rows of trees, park benches or gas lamps. In its treatment of space, Hassam’s Boston Common at Twilight, 1885–1886 (Boston, MA, Museum of Fine Arts) anticipates Paris Street Scene, Autumn. In each, the receding rows of trunks of nearly leafless trees play against the silhouetted forms of the promenading figures.
Paris Street Scene, Autumn relates directly to Autumn (unlocated), the artist’s eleven-foot long entry to the 1889 Paris Salon . Unlike the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza canvas, Autumn was a meticulously realised study depicting the varied and colourful realities of Parisian street life. The scene is dominated by the large figure of a bearded man, his harp over one shoulder while carrying his hat before him under the other arm. An old woman is sweeping up leaves which will be placed in the wheelbarrow that rests before her. Behind these two figures flows a stream of fashionably dressed Parisians. Paris Street Scene. Autumn, which is either a study for his large Salon work, or a variation upon it, retains the identical street scene, including the pattern of scattered leaves. The anecdotal figures of the old man and woman have been eliminated, however, and the elegantly-attired Parisians have been reduced to an anonymous mass of shoppers.
Hassam was acutely aware of the difference between his interpretations of the scene, and his preference was for a spontaneous rendering of street activity, a capturing in his own words, of “the spirit, life, I might say poetry, of figures in motion.” In a response to a critic’s question, he stated: “I cannot imagine [...] how a man who sees fifty feet into a picture can paint the eyes and noses of figures at that distance. I should call such a painting a good piece of work—yes, good scientific work; but I should not call it good art. Good art is, first of all, true. If you looked down a street and saw at one glance a moving throng of people, say fifty or one hundred feet away, it would not be true that you would see the details of their features or dress. Any one who paints a scene of that sort, and gives you such details, is not painting from the impression he gets on the spot, but from pre-conceived ideas he has formed from sketching studio models and figures near at hand. Such a man is an analyst, not an artist. Art, to me is the interpretation of the impression which nature makes upon the eye and brain”.
Hassam adhered to Baudelaire’s entreaty to be a painter of modern life, believing that a true historical painter was one who recorded his own epoch and painted the life he saw around him. But it was not, he wrote, “why I paint these scenes of the street. I sketch these things because I believe them to be aesthetic and fitting subjects for pictures. There is nothing so interesting to me as people. I am never tired of observing them in every-day life, as they hurry through the streets on business or saunter down the promenade on pleasure. Humanity in motion is a continual study to me”.
Kenneth W. Maddox