Lot 9
  • 9

Childe Hassam 1859 - 1935

500,000 - 700,000 USD
1,538,500 USD
bidding is closed


  • Childe Hassam
  • Rainy Day, New York
  • signed Childe Hassam, N.Y. and dated 1892, l.r.
  • watercolor on paper


Mrs. David Boies, Jr., Hampton, New Hampshire
Vose Galleries, Boston, Massachusetts, by 1987
Acquired by the present owners from the above, 1987

Catalogue Note

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 Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is the author of Childe Hassam, American Impressionist (Prestel, New York and Munich, 1994).

Scenes of rain-swept city streets were a familiar staple of Hassam's oeuvre throughout his career, beginning with his formative years in Boston in the early 1880's, and extending into the famous American "Flag" series created during World War I. Such scenes of urban life stemmed from the artist's belief that art should mirror modern life, and that its most authentic expression lay in the spectacle of America's great cities. "I believe the man who will go down to posterity is the man who paints his own time and the scenes of everyday life around him," said Hassam. [i]  He did not originate the idea of painting city streets, but awakened to its promise sooner, and applied it with more consistency and originality than any other American painter of his time. This belief was manifested through countless works in oil and watercolor and in a volume published in 1899 titled Three Cities which brought together views rendered by Hassam in Paris, London and New York. [ii]

Of all these cities Hassam developed a special fascination for his adopted home, New York: "When I came back I came to New York [in 1889], though I always considered Boston my home. To me it is the most wonderful and most beautiful city in the world. All life is in it... no street, no section of Paris or any other city I have seen is equal to New York." [iii] 

The watercolor traditionally titled Rainy Day, New York, which here can be more accurately referred to as Rainy Night, New York, typifies the artist's predilection for exceptional conditions of light and atmosphere that might lend added drama and energy to his scenes: thus rain, snow, mist, evening dark and man-made light, all became grist for his artistic mill. These account, for instance, for the evocative titles attached to two other watercolors he exhibited in the same year he created Rainy Night, New York : The White Mist of December - Madison Square, New York; and Rain, and Mist and Electric Light, Madison Square, N.Y.

Some of Hassam's nocturnal compositions suggest an air of sullen mystery, which led one newspaper critic to remark on certain of the artist's street scenes as "peopled with phantom figures and gleaming with the wet reflections of the city's lights."  In Rainy Night, New York, however, the mood remains buoyant with anticipation, as if some special event - perhaps a theater or dinner engagement -  had called forth the arrival of its actors.

The man, wearing top hat, black dress coat and white scarf, hovers attentively with raised umbrella while his female companion, dressed in equally stylish fashion, wears a beribboned hat and a stylish grey coat with puff sleeves over a layered dress in hues of light grey and blue. She is seen perhaps making minor adjustments to her garment, and both figures appear to pause or walk slowly, as if having just alighted from the horse-drawn cab standing curbside. The cabbie, positioned in his box above the horse, is an oft-repeated motif, representing a breed of humanity that Hassam found endlessly fascinating.

Hassam also produced a remarkably similar variant of this curbside couple in the contemporary watercolor Rainy Day (formerly Milch Galleries, illustrated)  in which a change in weather allowed the gentleman, now wearing a derby and tie, to furl his umbrella. The lady is posed virtually identically, while a hansom cab, now in motion is shifted leftward to the street. Another scene, likewise dated to 1892, is focused on a similar pair in elegant evening dress admiring a display of flowers in a store window; [iv] while yet another is posed in fair weather to the right of a scene set in front of Delmonico's Restaurant. [v] While Hassam never made replicas of his works, he did retain a store of motifs which he drew on freely to reassemble in new and imaginative ways.

The brilliance of the background light of Rainy Night, New York suggests that it probably reproduced the effects of electric light, then just being newly introduced into public places and which became a prominent element in several other Hassam works. Here the rain-slicked pavements are made to come alive with scattered reflections, while the coach forms its own glittering presence, both models of Hassam's enduring fondness for the abstract beauty of surfaces.

Among American artists of his time Hassam was singularly energetic in the marketing of his works, and he paid special attention to watercolors for deliberate reasons. They represented for him at once the opportunity to increase his output in a meaningful way, as well as to lure sales through the lower prices they commanded relative to oil paintings. In reference to the latter he considered watercolors "a more democratic art." One of the artist's first actions after moving to New York, was to join the American Watercolor Society, an organization that, among other things, allowed him to form several important, longstanding friendships, including those with the painters J. Alden Weir and John Twachtman. At the Society's annual exhibition, which took place at the National Academy in January, 1890, Hassam made his first watercolor sale to the well-known painter Samuel Colman. [vi]

Hassam was also a member and first president of the New York Watercolor Club which he helped found in 1890. At their third exhibition in November and December, 1892, he was represented by several unidentified  "New York street views," even possibly including Rainy Night, New York.  A month or so earlier he had given an interview to the magazine Art Amateur in which he described in vivid detail his method of creating such work in the streets:

I paint from cabs a good deal. I select my point of view and set up the canvas, or wooden panel, on the little seat in front of me, which forms an admirable easel. I paint from a cab window when I want to be on a level with the people in the street and wish to get comparatively near views of them, as you would see them as if walking in the street... I use an ordinary sketch book and pencil a great deal for making notes of characteristic attitudes and movements seen in the streets. If I want to observe night effects carefully, I stand out in the street with my little sketch-book, draw figures and shadows, and note down in colored crayons the tones seen in the sky in the snow, in the reflections or in a gas lamp shining through the haze. [vii]

This description provides a virtual recipe for Rainy Night, New York, including its relatively unusual point of view. Unlike many other Hassam street scenes which seek a wider view of crowds in movement such as  Rainy Day on Fifth Avenue (The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, illustrated) or Rainy Late Afternoon, Union Square (Museum of the City of New York , illustrated), both of which include umbrella-toting couples in the middle distance, Rainy Night, New York, frames a scene at ground level that is relatively isolated from the surrounding world. It is only beyond the cab that the summary shapes of umbrellas suggest the presence of other pedestrians.

Although the precise location depicted in Rainy Night, New York is unknown, it was almost certainly created near lower Fifth Avenue as were many of Hassam's scenes from the same period. The artist's first residence and studio in New York was at 95 Fifth Avenue in lower Manhattan, a block or two from Union Square. He remained there roughly two years before moving not too far away, to the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street. In addition to the titles of other works which identified Fifth Avenue, Hassam later commented about this time "Well, I was near Union Square...I made a series of water colors of Fifth Avenue. They were writing an article called Fifth Avenue..." [viii]  Although he went on to say that the article was never published, he did in fact illustrate a comparable article written for Century magazine in 1893 by Mariana Van Rensselaer. [ix]  A member of an old socially prominent New York family, Van Rensselaer sketched the fascinating changes that had occurred to her old neighborhood, recounting how herds of cattle had once been driven past her home near 17th Street and Fifth Avenue - the very location of Hassam's first studio - and that the area above 42nd Street was marked by livestock yards and open lots with skating ponds. Now, the area between 14th and 23rd Streets where Hassam lived had become a thriving commercial center, whose busy street life proved an irresistible source of inspiration for the artist.

With the charm that Hassam's images bring to viewers today, it is easy to forget that, in his day, the artist was considered a controversial figure, whose impressionist views made him more enemies than friends, both within and outside the artistic community. He was committed to respect the visual truth, both in forgoing details that would never be apparent in life, and in recreating the true nature of forms as they became visible in light and atmosphere under changing conditions. "Art to me, he said in describing such scenes as Rainy Night, New York, "is the interpretation of the impression which nature makes upon the eye and brain...The true impressionism is realism."

[i]  A. E. Ives,  "Talks with Artists: Mr. Childe Hassam on Painting Street Scenes." Art Amateur  27(Oct. 1892), p. 116, as quoted in Ulrich W. Hiesinger, Childe Hassam, American Impressionist,  Munich and New York, 1994, p. 179-80.
[ii]  Childe Hassam, Three Cities, New York, 1899.
[iii] John Kimberly Mumford, Who's Who in New York ...No. 75, 1925.
[iv]  New Year's Nocturne, in Ilene Susan Fort, Childe Hassam's New York, San Francisco, 1993, pl.14.
[v]  Mariana G. Van Rensselaer, "Fifth Avenue with Pictures by Childe Hassam." Century, 47(Nov. 1893), p. 13.
[vi]  Dewitt Lockman Papers, Interview(s) with Childe Hassam, January 31, 1927. New York Historical Society.
[vii]  Ives, op. cit., p. 116.
[viii]  Dewitt Lockman Papers, op.cit., January 31, 1927.
[ix]  Van Rensselaer, op. cit., pp. 5-18.