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Frederick Childe Hassam
(American, 1859–1935 )
Public Common, Woodstock, New York
n.d. (ca. 1891)
pastel on paper, 17 1/2" x 21 3/8"
Gift of Mrs. E. L. Tuohy

Thought to be the most accomplished of all American impressionists, Frederick Childe Hassam began his career as an apprentice to the wood engraver George E. Johnson around 1879 and then worked as a freelance illustrator for newspapers and popular magazines such as Scribner’s, Century, and Harper’s. In the late 1870s Hassam studied with the local artist William Rimmer, and at the Boston Art Club and Lowell Institute. Initially his watercolor landscapes and Boston street scenes reflected the academic realism and dark, muted palette of the Munich and French Barbizon schools. In 1883 Hassam made his first visit to Europe, traveling in Great Britain, France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Spain. During his travels he produced scores of watercolors depicting urban scenes, which were looser in brushwork and lighter in palette than his earlier Barbizon-inspired works. Having achieved success in Europe, Hassam returned to Boston, where his reputation continued to grow. In 1886 Hassam and his wife embarked on a three-year stay in Europe, where he studied at the Academie Julian and traveled throughout France and England. Hassam was inspired by his contact with works by Claude Monet and other French impressionists, and by the many American artists working in France. However, where the French impressionists were primarily interested in the optical effects of their new painting style, Hassam was more interested in using it to depict the everyday activities of urban life. In other words, his preoccupation was with subject over style or technique.

In an interview (published circa 1894) he stated. “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.”

On his return to America in 1889 Hassam settled in New York City, devoting himself to impressionistically painted depictions of urban life, and views in and around many rural New England towns. Public Common, Woodstock, New York, clearly reflects Hassam’s application of impressionist techniques, and demonstrates his mastery of the pastel medium. He was a member of the Society of Painters in Pastel, which held exhibitions between 1884 and 1890, and established the importance of the medium among artists, critics and collectors of the day. Public Common, Woodstock can be dated with relative certainty to sometime after 1890, when Hassam was known to be visiting smaller New England towns, and to have spent two summers in Woodstock, sketching and painting local scenery. Like many of his larger oil paintings, this pastel drawing captures a moment of everyday activity – a woman with a child in a baby carriage rest at a bench, protected from the sun by the shadows of the village common’s large trees. Restricted to greens, grays and browns, the scene is enlivened by Hassam’s use of strong highlights of white chalk that give the impression of intense dappled sunlight breaking through the trees. This restricted palette, a feature of many American impressionist artworks, also allows the drawing’s emphasis to rest on sharp divisions of light and dark, rather than on color. As an illustrator, Hassam’s roots lay in just such manipulation of contrasting values of one color. It is significant that late in his career, he returned to the production of etchings and lithographs in black and white.

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