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The Mass Media

An Overlooked Impressionist

When one thinks of impressionism, perhaps they think of Monet, Pissaro, or Renoir-but one impressionist they may not think of is a Dorchester native, Childe Hassam (1859-1935). Hassam was an artist who lurked in the shadows of French impressionists and his work is said to be under-appreciated.

The good news is that word about Hassam is spreading with the help of Jane Gaughan, former librarian with a doctorate in art appreciation. In collaboration with Dale Freeman, assistant archivist at the Healey Library, she has pieced together an exhibit at UMass Boston entitled “The Early Years of Childe Hassam.” The exhibit highlights Hassam’s early life in Dorchester and is on display on the fifth floor in the Healey Library.

“Displaying the early years of his work coincides with the archive’s mission of representing local history,” says Freeman. “Jane came with knowledge and we connected with our passion for research,” explains Freeman. According to the Dorchester Reporter, Gaughan says, “One of the forces that shapes us is childhood, and the fact that [Hassam] spent his childhood in Dorchester is interesting.”

Freeman described Hassam’s artwork as underrated, perhaps because well-known European artists received the bulk of the wolrd’s attention. In a review from The Patriot Ledger, Gaughan explains, “He was just too popular in his own time.” The review additionally states in response to Gaughan’s quote, “… commercial success for an artist is not necessarily a good thing in a society that likes its artist to suffer, even periodically to starve.”

What is unique about Hassam is that he doesn’t fit this “starving artist” cliché because he financially supported himself with his artwork. Leaving Dorchester high school in 1872, Hassam first went to work in an accounting department of a Boston publishing house, and then later in the firm of a Boston wood engraver. His career as an artist emerged there and he was soon a free-lance illustrator, submitting works to Harper’s, Scribner’s and The Century.

Hassam traveled throughout Europe beginning at the age of 24. His most notable voyage was his trip to Paris in 1886. Here, he was able to set up a studio on the Boulevard Clichy and study at the Académie Julian under Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre. After staying for three years, his paintings were accepted for the Paris Salon showings of 1887, 1888, and 1889.

According to the Kennedy Galleries website, “The first showing of his work was well received and launched his reputation as a brilliant American Exponent of the Impressionist style”. Contrarily, one critic of his time noted in 1917, “There is no American artist now before the public that the American reviewer is called upon to consider so frequently as Mr. Hassam. In consequence it is sometimes difficult to have new things to say in regard to him, particularly as Mr. Hassam doesn’t seem to have new things to say for himself.”

In spite of criticisms, Hassam produced some of the most amazing artwork of his time. Among Hassam’s works are landscapes Bostonians may recognize, such as “Boston Common at Twilight” (1885-1886) and “Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston” (1885). Hassam’s artwork is known for its intimate, gentle qualities in his pastels and watercolors. Hassam was also an etcher and lithographer, taking up the etching needle at age 56. Toward the end of his life, Hassam remarked, “I began my career in the graphic arts and I am ending it in the graphic arts.”

These paintings, among others can be viewed at the showcases in Healey. The exhibit cases are lined with William Morris Wallpaper dating back to the Victorian era, adding a nice touch to the work of Gaughan and Freeman. Letters and books displayed in the exhibit are from the UMB archives, but the rest of the features are from Gaughan’s research.

The UMB Archives are located on the fifth floor of the Healey Library. It was established in 1981 as a repository to collect archival material in subject areas of interest to the university. Archives and Special Collections provide various printed and archival material for the study of the history, policies, and programs of UMB.

According to the Dorchester Reporter, Freeman believes the exhibit will help raise awareness about Hassam’s roots: “A lot of people know his work, but don’t know he is from Dorchester and the people who live here should be aware of the contributions he made.”

“There is a realness to his work, he really captures the moment. As a historian, it’s great to see a moment in time so well captured,” says Freeman about Hassam’s artwork. The exhibit will be running through September and is being showed concurrently with another exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, entitled Childe Hassam: American Impressionist.