Milch Gallery, New York
Hersey Eggington, New York
Milch Gallery, New York
Samuel Katz, Baltimore, Maryland
Milch Gallery, New York
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York
John D. Rockefeller, III, New York
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York
Newhouse Galleries, New York
Thomas Mellon Evans (acquired from the above; sold: Christie's, New York, May 21, 1998, lot 57, illustrated in color)
Acquired by the present owner at the above sale
We are grateful to Dr. Ulrich W. Hiesinger for preparing the following essay. Dr. Hiesinger is an independent writer and scholar curator whose publications have covered a variety of art historical fields. He is the creator of a sixteen-volume series on world art, has taught at Harvard University, The University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Delaware, and has served as exhibition curator at the the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is the author of Childe Hassam, American Impressionist (New York, 1994).
The painting Quai St. Michel belongs to one of the most formative episodes in Childe Hassam's career, coinciding with his three-year stay in Paris from 1886 to 1889. By the time the artist created this picture, he had reached an important turning point in defining the subjects and working methods that would follow him into later life.
The painting was acquired during the artist's lifetime by New York collector Hersey Egginton, who at one time owned at least twelve works by Hassam. At center we see a young woman in elegant attire examining volumes in one of a half-dozen or so portable book stalls, watched over by a matronly proprietress who absent-mindedly tends to her knitting. The background is enlivened by groups of passers-by, including those crossing a bridge, and what appears to be a pair of workers leaning over a parapet to watch the steam barges on the river below. Street and sidewalk glisten as if in the aftermath of a passing downpour and, indeed, the figures of father and child seem dressed for rain, while the elegant young lady appears to carry a furled umbrella. Beyond the bridge to the right appears a group of tall buildings, and what may be a low, metal-roofed street market with the added details of colorful banners and an advertising kiosk.
As the title suggests, the scene takes place along the Seine, apparently located at the western end of the Quai St. Michel where it meets the bridge of the same name. Across the bridge lies the Île de la Cité, site of some of the city's most famous landmarks including the medieval cathedral of Notre Dame and the jewel-like Sainte‑Chapelle. The Quai is little changed in appearance to this day, though greatly obscured by the stalls of vendors and booksellers that still do business there. Hassam used the identical location for another composition painted in the same year: Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris (illustrated), embraces the quai view in the opposite direction, as if Hassam had pivoted his easel 180 degrees away from the Quai St. Michel scene.
Hassam came to Paris in the fall of 1886 from Boston, hoping to benefit from the rigorous training in figure drawing favored by the French academies. He attended the Académie Julian, a private school popular with Americans, where entrance requirements were minimal, as was also the attention of its prestigious faculty professors drawn from the ranks of the official École des Beaux‑Arts. Although Hassam at first participated in formal drawing exercises, he came to dislike what he regarded as the artificiality and rigidity of the French academic system. There is little evidence, in fact, that he ever retained much from it, reverting instead to his predilection for subjects drawn from street life; the painterly techniques he acquired came similarly from a rather haphazard sampling of artists' work around him. Hassam said in later years, "[my] Paris instruction was superfluous,"1 and that he had followed there "his own method." 2
Hassam's earliest works in Paris inclined towards either large-scale compositions intended for the Paris Salon and other major exhibitions - an example being his Cab Station, Rue Bonaparte (private collection) - and smaller, intimate studies meant quickly to capture the passing scenes of life in the city. During his first months in Paris the artist mentioned painting "some little Paris thing of the streets," adding, "I have unquestionably arrived at my selection of subjects." 3
It took Hassam some time to shake loose from the nearly exclusive preoccupation with mist-laden rainy day effects that he had pursued in Boston. Hassam was always somewhat evasive, if not self-unaware of the influences which helped re-shape his art, and in a city burgeoning with talent, he remained quite eclectic in his opinions of fellow artists. It is worth noting, however, that although he considered the group somewhat "extreme," he did speak in praise of the charm and lasting value of works by Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Camille Pissaro, whose interest in representing light and color he eventually shared.4
A summer spent painting in Brittany may have been a catalyst for change, for by the autumn of 1887 Hassam was at work on an outdoor piece that has come to be regarded as a landmark in his artistic development, representing the first major canvas in which he committed himself to a bright new palette that captured the effect of full sunlight. In it Hassam discovered color, appearing not only as pure, bright accents, but lending its aura throughout, even coloring the shadows. The work in question is his famous Grand Prix Day which exists respectively in large and small versions in public collections in New Britain, Connecticut, and Boston (illustrated). The theme of these paintings is the fashionable racing-day parades in Paris that inaugurated each racing season. "Just now...," he wrote in November 1887, " I am painting sunlight - a 'four in hand' and the crowds of fiacres filled with the well dressed women who go to the "Grand Prix." 5 Grand Prix Day, hung at the 1888 Paris salon, and again in Chicago, where it was described as "a very brilliant picture, full of life and light and movement, and instinct with the gayety of the bright French capital." 6
Thereafter Hassam began to show a much greater freedom in technical means as well as in his range of subjects. By the spring of 1888, Hassam had stopped going to the Académie Julian altogether and was working entirely on his own. His output of paintings increased dramatically, as he began to experiment with bold color notes, and used his brush in a much freer manner. It is part of this transition that Quai St. Michel so effectively demonstrates.
The village atmosphere of his own neighborhood in Montmartre became a source for subjects in small format as it did for View in Montmartre, Paris (Art Museum, Princeton University) but just as often the artist moved to the city's monumental center as he did for Quai St. Michel. The scale of the latter, along with that of a few other works, established a notable mid-ground between his very quick, small studies and largest paintings. Hassam's catalogue of subjects represented a cross-section of Parisian life, ranging from shopkeepers and street vendors, to flower girls, nannies, cabbies, street sweepers, and boulevardiers, and he moved effortlessly from depicting gracious strollers in sunlit parks to the evocative nightlife on the city's fashionable avenues.
While no social activist, the artist was clearly mindful of the disparities in the city's life which separated rich from poor and working from leisure classes. Frequently he chose to underline the juxtaposition of social classes through gentle, self-evident contrasts. Such is the case with The Morning Paper [Paris] (illustrated), a study much smaller but not far removed in spirit from Quai St. Michel, where a prosperous gentleman in top hat is profiled against a newsstand and its humble denizen.
In Quai St. Michel there is no mistaking Hassam's similar aim, as he carefully detailed the young lady's delicate profile and her stylish wardrobe of kidskin gloves, flared waistcoat, corsage and feathered hat; all these stand in pointed contrast to the vendor's time-worn face, her simple bonnet and brightly colored patchwork shawl. Far from disapproving, the artist carried the scene forward in a spirit of spontaneous neutrality, and invested it with its own simple dignity and charm.
Not long before returning to America, Hassam arranged for an exhibition of his paintings in his hometown of Boston in March, 1889. There reviewers acknowledged the tremendous growth that had occurred during the artist's Paris years. One wrote that Hassam's paintings were,
"full of gaiety and brightness," with a "truly Parisian savor.... Since he left Boston, he has made a very noticeable gain, especially in color, and he has never painted so well as now. Those who `know their Paris' will be pleased to recognize the truth of observation illustrated ... small and dainty pictures, which are thoroughly enjoyable and artistic." 7
1 Quoted in Frederick W. Morton, "Childe Hassam Impressionist," Brush and Pencil 8, June 1901, p. 146.
2 Quoted in John Kimberly Mumford, "Who's Who in New York," no. 75, New York Herald Tribune, Aug. 30, 1925, p.11.
3 Childe Hassam to William Howe Downes, Jan. 11, 1887, Boston Athenaeum.
4 Ibid., Childe Hassam to William Howe Downes, May 28, 1889.
5 Childe Hassam to Rose Lamb, November 29, 1887, Portsmouth Library, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Lyman V. Rutledge Isles of Shoals Collection.
6 Childe Hassam Papers, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, clipping identified as from Chicago News.
7 Ibid., Hassam Papers, "Fine Arts, Exhibition of Mr. Hassam's Paintings at Noyes, Cobb & Co.'s Gallery", undated clipping from Boston Transcript.
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