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New York Exhibit Salutes Master of Americana Art - 2004-06-23

Summer in the United States begins and closes with the flying of flags on the May Memorial Day salute to U.S. veterans and on Labor Day in early September. Flags are also unfurled across the nation in June in honor of D-Day and Flag Day, and again on the Fourth of July to commemorate the nation's Independence. So it is appropriate that New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has chosen as its main summer exhibit the work of Childe Hassam, one of the United States' most patriotic artists.

Childe Hassam spent his long and successful 50-year career painting loving and pleasurable scenes of the United States. He idealized both town and country, celebrating his New England Yankee roots and the modernity and diversity of American cities, in vibrant, impressionistic oils, pastels, and watercolors.

Hassam began his career as an illustrator and engraver, but in the late 1880s he traveled to Paris to study art. Soon, he brought the colorful impressionistic style of painting home where he became the United States' most popular practitioner of Impressionism.

Morrison Heckscher, the head of the Metropolitan Museum's American art section, says Hassam's popularity is easy to understand.

"Childe Hassam is, I think, America's favorite Impressionist and I do not think there is any secret why. He lovingly painted things that we love," he explains.

Hassam settled in New York where he documented the city's transformation into a major metropolis. He captured the city's landmarks, from parks to skyscrapers, in rain, snow and the fading light of day.

Steven Pisarkiewicz, a spokesperson for the Bank of New York, which is sponsoring the exhibit, says Hassam's appeal is especially strong to those who love New York.

"Hassam certainly fell under its own spell as he once famously insisted 'no city in the world is quite like New York City,'" Mr. Pisarkiewicz adds. "In his many renderings of New York life, he showed us why. He captured the city's commotion and camaraderie, its energy and excitement and its dynamic and distinctive spirit."

Hassam left the city in the summer months for the beloved New England of his youth, painting breathtaking seascapes and idyllic renderings of small town America. Many of the summer paintings were done on the Isles of Shoals off the coast of the northeastern state of New Hampshire. Curator Barbara Weinberg says Hassam found so much creative energy on the Isles of Shoals that the Museum devoted an entire gallery to works he painted there.

"Fully one-tenth of his output was a result of his many visits to the Isles of Shoals," she explains. "Then we have a second gallery of New England subjects that give a kind of composite portrait of New England outside of the Isles of Shoals."

But Hassam's most popular works are 30 eye-catching depictions of flags. The paintings were inspired by the banners of 22 nations that flew along New York's Fifth Avenue before, during, and after the United States' entry into the First World War. Barbara Weinberg says the rich colors and varied patterns of the flags must have appealed to Hassam's artistry and patriotism.

"He does not say much about his political feeling about the displays, just that it was dazzling," Barbara Weinberg adds. "Of course, as a New Yorker, as an Impressionist, and as someone who was himself very deep-rooted as a Yankee and very patriotic, it must have had a certain appeal."

Hassam enjoyed enormous success through his life, much of it, Curator Weinberg says, due to his own astute marketing his work.

"He was very interested in self-promotional and self-marketing, painted only works only to sell," Barbara Weinberg says. "Never painted on commission, never did decorative arts projects or portraits on commission, and turned out a tremendous body of work, showed like a demon in many, many exhibitions. Sometimes 40 or 50 of his works were on view at the same time. And died a very rich man, died with an estate in the millions."

By the time Childe Hassam died at age 75 in 1935, his popularity had waned and a new style of modern art was flourishing. But in the 1960s American Impressionism was rediscovered and Hassam found favor with a new generation of collectors who admire him as classic American painter.