Simple Forms and Shimmering Light: the Impressionism of Childe Hassam. ART: REVIEW

IT didn't take long for Impressionism to catch on in the United States, or for American painters to absorb its theories. The first artist to commit herself to this new method of painting was Mary Cassatt, followed by Theodore Robinson, J. Alden Weir, John Twachtman, and several others. None was more successful, however, or more representative of the American version of this essentially French movement, than Childe Hassam (1859-1935). Hassam's Impressionism emerged after his 1886 trip to Paris, and began to bloom after his return to the US in 1889. Success came quickly, and fame as America's premier Impressionist followed shortly thereafter. Even today, the best of his lively park and garden vistas, sun-filled interiors, and picturesque seashore and urban scenes rank among the finest American paintings produced during the 1890-1920 period.

Among Hassam's more interesting works is a series of paintings, watercolors, and prints known collectively as his Flag Paintings. They were inspired by the elaborate Preparedness Day celebration of May 13, 1916, which took place on New York's Fifth Avenue as a demonstration of America's support of France and England during the first two years of World War I. New York was to be host to many more such dramatic parades over the next three years, and Hassam was almost always present, usually with sketchbook in hand.

TWENTY-FIVE of these works are on view at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art here. ``The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam'' constitutes the most complete showing of the series since its 1922 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. A loan from 21 public and private collections, it was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and is accompanied by an illustrated catalog.

Although he painted some flag paintings in 1916 and in early 1917, it wasn't until America's entry into World War I that he put real effort into the series. While many of his canvases were painted in response to specific events, what he saw was always translated into a few highly simplified forms and masses of shimmering light and coloristic effects.

Thus, ``Allied Day, May 1917,'' which depicted the flags of 11 allied nations hanging in great profusion along Fifth Avenue, became a high-keyed color-poem. And ``Red Cross Drive, May 1918'' became a veritable riot of brilliant colors dominated by three huge symbols of the Red Cross.

His most concentrated effort, however, was inspired by the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive, held during the autumn of 1918. Hundreds of flags and pennants and what seemed like miles of bunting were hung across 34 blocks of Fifth Avenue, creating an effect Hassam couldn't resist. Within three weeks, he produced five of his most successful flag paintings, including ``Avenue of the Allies: Great Britain, 1918.''

``The Flag Paintings of Childe Hassam'' is a lively and handsome show that should help increase the public's awareness of Hassam's accomplishments during an especially interesting period of American art.

Unfortunately, it also pinpoints his weaknesses, most particularly his tendency toward prettiness - especially where color was concerned - and his dependency on surface charm. Hassam was a good painter, even, at times, a very fine one. But he wasn't a great one - as even a moment's comparison of his canvases with those of Monet, Renoir, or any of the other major French Impressionists will confirm.

At the IBM Gallery of Science and Art, 590 Madison Avenue, through June 3.

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