While Hassam spent much time at the turn of the century exploring a variety of neighborhoods, Fifth Avenue had a particular appeal. “To him Fifth Avenue is the most marvelous metropolitan street in the whole world. One can never mistake this impressive Avenue for any other street of any other city; there is nothing approaching it in composition or in realization of man’s sense of architectural beauty. In his pictures, lives all that appeals to our patriotic and zealous love of this street” (as quoted in “Painting America: Childe Hassam’s Way,” The Touchstone 5, July, 1919, p. 272 in Ilene Susan Fort, Childe Hassam’s New York, San Francisco, California, 1993, n.p.) Hassam was captivated by the study of people going about their quotidian lives and Fifth Avenue provided him continual opportunities to for social observation. “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” (Ibid., p. VIII).
In New York Street Scene (Fifth Avenue) Hassam pays homage to the both the city and one of the grandest thoroughfares of the time, depicting various vignettes of daily life in the vibrant city. The focal point of the painting is an elegant woman wearing a striking yellow dress and blue hat, walking her dog along the crowded street. This sophisticated woman, “epitomizes Hassam’s method of using a solitary ‘leading’ figure to mark the visual entry point of his compositions. Hassam…[likens] the portrait of a city to that of a person [and strives] to capture ‘not only the superficial resemblance, but the inner self. The spirit…the soul of a city” (Weinberg, p. 65). Hassam employs animated brushwork throughout the composition to convey the energy and motion of the pedestrians as well as to capture the atmospheric effects of the sunny day. The lively scene most likely depicts Fifth Avenue looking southward from the corner of 53rd or 54th Street with St. Patrick’s Cathedral visible in the distance.
A number of Hassam’s contemporaries shared his affection for New York City and it was a popular subject among the American Impressionists. However, artists such as William Merritt Chase and Maurice Brazil Prendergast typically chose to paint the city’s parks rather than street scenes. Parks represented urban growth and were symbolic of the modern era. Prendergast was fascinated by these urban green spaces and their ability to bring together people from all social classes. Chase painted a number of park scenes including depictions of Prospect Park, Tompkins Park and Central Park.
Today Hassam is widely regarded as a pioneer of American Impressionism and the perennial freshness of works such as New York Street Scene (Fifth Avenue) is testament to his talent and innovative approach.
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