The American painter Childe Hassam (1859-1935) enjoyed a very long and productive career. According to H. Barbara Weinberg, the curator of the exhibition Childe Hassam, American Impressionist , at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the artist’s oeuvre totaled “more than two thousand oils, watercolors, and pastels and other drawings, as well as illustrations for articles and books. His prints included more than four hundred etchings, lithographs, and lithotints.” Lest we fail to be duly impressed by these figures the first time we encounter them on page 15 of the show’s catalog, they are repeated for us in Kathleen M. Burnside’s essay on page 355 in the same catalogue. Elsewhere-in Robert Hughes’ American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (1997)-the Hassam oeuvre is said to number more than 4,000 works.
Given these figures, the good news about the current show at the Met is that no attempt has been made to include every item in this vast production. The bad news is that the visitor to this very large exhibition, which consists of some 140 works, is nonetheless made to feel that far too much has been included: The exhibition is simply too big for its subject.
Hassam was, after all, a minor figure in the art of his time-minor, that is, in aesthetic achievement. And his limitations were compounded by his habit of repeating himself to meet the demands of a robust market. He wasn’t a very interesting personality, either. Beyond the labors of the studio and his memberships in a few elite clubs, he seems to have had no interests or aspirations. None, that is, other than to keep the pot boiling.
Hassam’s principal claim on the attention of posterity-his alleged mastery of Impressionism-is itself highly equivocal. It was his main distinction to have succeeded in transforming Impressionism into something safe, sweet, conservative and comforting for an American public averse to avant-garde innovation. He was famously touchy on the subject of Monet’s influence, which he refused to acknowledge. In some respects, alas, he was right to do so, for Hassam’s Impressionism encompassed only the most superficial aspects of Monet’s Impressionism. In fact, he considered Jongkind a greater painter than Monet.
What Stephanie Herdrich writes in the catalogue about Hassam’s early work holds true for much that followed: Hassam’s Boston cityscapes of the mid-1880s show strong affinities with the work of the conservative artists of the juste-milieu. These painters, who worked in France and included Giuseppe de Nittis and Jean Béraud, combined Impressionist subject matter with more traditional academic techniques.” Alas, combining Impressionist subject matter with more traditional academic techniques remained Hassam’s formula for many years-a formula that proved to be both popular and lucrative.
It was only in the last two decades of his long life that Hassam began to show signs of transcending his own limitations. Even then, it took a seismic event-the outbreak of the First World War-to provoke him into attempting a major effort. This came with the now-celebrated flag paintings marking the victory of the United States and its European allies in the war. Intense patriotic sentiment combined with the flag-waving pageantry of the Armistice festivities inspired in Hassam a vein of energy and expression not seen in the earlier work. Hassam himself clearly understood that the flag paintings were his greatest work. (I would say his only great work.) “Four days after the armistice was signed, on November 11, 1918,” writes Ms. Weinberg, “Hassam showed twenty-three Flag paintings together for the first time, at New York’s Durnand-Ruel Galleries. Proud of his accomplishment, he would exhibit the series five times, seeking, unsuccessfully, to sell the canvases as a group.” Today, the flag paintings are the main attraction in Childe Hassam, American Impressionist , which is otherwise dominated by second-rate work.
It remains to be explained why the Met, with its stunning roster of recent and current exhibitions, believed it appropriate to devote so much space, so much publicity and such an overweight catalog to such a checkered accomplishment. One plausible explanation may be found in the myth of what used to be called “summer exhibitions.” There was a period years ago when museums felt obliged to mount lighter, less demanding exhibitions during the summer months in the hope of attracting tourists and other visitors whose minds, no less than their bodies, were on holiday from serious challenges. This is a standard that is easily met in Childe Hassam, American Impressionist , which remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Sept. 12.