Childe Hassam
Marblehead's Etcher

by Alec MacDonald

Famed artist, Childe Hassam, drew a Marblehead Messenger sketch more than a century ago. For nearly a century, the first "serious" work of art by one of American's foremost artists gracefully adorned the front page of the Marblehead Messenger and is still reproduced weekly in an inside page of the Marblehead Reporter.

The artist is Frederick Childe Hassam and the sketch he sold to the Messenger is that panoramic view of the town of Marblehead which became so familiar to generations of townspeople over the years.

The work is described as "serious" because until that time all that young Childe Hassam had sold were letterhead sketches for Lynn shoe factories. The budding artist was then at a wood engraver's shop in his native Boston.

Today, Childe Hassam's works are displayed in major galleries of American and Europe and bring prices of more than a quarter million dollars. Two of his works, "Boston Common at Twilight" painted in 1886, and "Grand Prix Day" (in Paris), painted in 1887, are on permanent display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

By the end of the 19th century, he was ranked by some citrates as one of the "Big Three," alongside John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer. In 1916 the American critic, J. Walker McSpadden, described Hassam as "outranking even Rembrant as an engraver."

The name "Childe hassam" has puzzled many, evoking suspicion of Byronic pretensions. Actually, he was named "Childe" after the surname of a maternal uncle and the "Hassam" was a dissertation of the family name of Horsham, his ancestors of that name having come to Boston in the early 18th century from Sussex, England. He had Revolutionary ancestors who fought at Bunker Hill.

Childe Hassam was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, on October 17, 1855. His father was a prosperous Boston businessman who was financially ruined by the great fire of 1872.
The boy went to a private school run by William T. Adams (whose novels under the pseudonym of Oliver Optic were part of the boyhood reading of some of us old-timers). Later Hassam went to Dorchester High School where he played on the school's rugby team.
From high school, he went to work in the Boston engraving shop and began turning out his Lynn letterheads. It was in late 1880 that he sketched panorama of Marblehead for N. Allen Lindsey, the editor and publisher of the Messenger. It appeared for the first time on the weekly paper's front page on January 7, 1881. Mr. Lindsey had some kind but pithy remarks to make about the work.

"The drawing was executed by Mr. F. Hassam of Boston, who made the sketches on the spot," Lindsey wrote in that week's edition. "We have sought for artistic effect rather than for more detail. We have not attempted to represent every shingle, clapboard or chimney in our view of the town or even to an exact picture of the houses but that the effect is a truthful representation of the landscape we think few will deny." Mr. Lindsey did not reveal, nor do the records show, how much he paid the young artist for the drawing.

By then Hassam was experimenting with crow-quill and crayon and soon was doing work in color as a book illustrator. After joining the Boston Art Club, he studied in life classes.
Hassam set up studio in Boston and in February, 1884, married Kathleen Maud Doane, who had a long New England ancestory, including five Mayflower passengers, and whose family came to Eastham, Massachusetts from Nova Scotia in the 1760s. Her father, Thomas Coffin Doane, was a painter and early photographer, who had a studio in Montreal, then moved to Boston, where she met Hassam. The following year they went to Paris and settled in an apartment in Montmarte, near Place Pigalle. While studying at the Academic Julian, he met some the French Impressionists and other artists of the period, among them Degas, Mary Cassatt, Renoir, Picasso and Monet.

Although he was influenced by the Impressionists, Hassam was annoyed by being called "a pupil of Monet." Though he borrowed from Impressionism, Hassam clung to more traditional principles of painting. At one time he said, "My studies in Boston were preliminary, in Paris, superfluous."

While in France, he won a bronze medal at the Paris Exposition in 1890 and a silver medal at the Munich International Exhibition in 1892.

In 1889 the Hassams returned to the United States and lived near Union Square in New York. He soon completed "Fifth Avenue in March," which compares to with his Boston Common painting at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Hassam became leader of the Ten American Painters and for the next decade artists of this group held their own exhibitions throughout the country. By this time museums everywhere were vying for Hassam's paintings.

One of his works, done at Old Lynne, Connecticut, titled, "June," won the Carnegie Prize for the most meritorious painting by an American.

Although often regarded as an Impressionist, Hassam continued to reject such classification. He also shunned portraiture, although a portrait of himself is the frontispiece of a biography of him written by Adele Adams and published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1938.

Hash did not approve of modern art in general but said he was "revolted by the sham, insincerity and snobbery" of much of it.

Hassam died in East Hampton, Connecticut, on August 27, 1935.

Another Marblehead aspect of the Hassam story is the fact that the father of Mrs. G. Frank Cram of this town was a personal friend of the celebrated artist. He was Mr. Dwight Blaney, of Salem and Boston, who was himself a well-known draftsman and authority on antiques. A graduate of the Chauncy Hall School in Boston and later associated with the Carnegie Institute, Blaney was also a friend of John Singer Sargent and of Marblehead's famed etcher, Samuel Chamberlain. At one time Childe Hassam did one of his rare portraits, a painting of Mrs. Cram's mother, which is still in the possession of Mrs. Cram. Her parents were then living on Mt. Vernon Street in Boston.

But the pleasing thought for Marbleheaders is that it was in our long-lived town newspaper that this great American artist had, as it were, his professional start.
With special thanks to Bart Saxbe for his very helpful information on Kathleen Maud Doane and her family.