In Situ: The Painted Panel
Childe Hassam (1859 – 1935)
Childe Hassam was already known as a leading Impressionist when he first visited the Griswold House in the summer of 1903. He was surely aware that Henry Ward Ranger and others had already established an American Barbizon there, named for the French village where innovative artists had a half century earlier painted the rural countryside in subdued tones. The Tonalists, as the Americans called themselves, may have wondered why Hassam, whose art was so different from theirs, had come at all. Perhaps it was because Cos Cob, a previous summer haunt of his, would have seemed sadly empty after the recent death of his close friend and the colony’s leader, John Henry Twachtman.
Despite snipes at his brightly-hued art, Hassam was treated like a star in Old Lyme, a setting he decided was “just the place for high thinking and low living.” He was given the best studio and was invited to paint the panels of a door in the Griswold House, a tradition Ranger began in 1900. He not only obliged but grayed his normally bright colors as effectively as any Tonalist. The nude females he portrayed may have caught his fellow artists off guard, for most thought that being informal meant rolling up one’s shirtsleeves at dinner on hot summer days. These nudes, however, are chaste, dreamy nymphs, at their ease in the landscape of Old Lyme.
Neoclassicism had made a comeback in American art and architecture as a result of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, where the classicism of the fair’s “White City” had enthralled the crowds. By the 1900s Hassam had developed an absorbing interest in incorporating Neoclassic figures into an Impressionist landscape.
Perhaps he thought thereby to transport Impressionism itself beyond the fad some thought it was and make it “classic” and timeless. Two years later he created a work he thought of as his masterpiece: June, a seven-foot-square painting of three female nudes bathing at the Lieutenant River.