Childe Hassam III
Bill Long 12/12/04
Examining the Oregon Paintings--In Honor of Jan Christensen
Hassam visited Oregon twice, once in 1904 and once in 1908. He came to see his friend CES Wood, whom he met through a mutual friend of theirs--the artist Julian Alden Weir, whom Wood had met when he was a student at West Point. When Hassam arrived in Portland in 1904, he brought with him a massive mural for Wood's personal library. After Wood died at age 92 in 1944, the mural was divided up and given away to various family members or others, but one portion of it (about 15 feet in length) has been preserved for the Portland Art Museum retrospective. It actually shows Hassam at his worst as a painter--several nudes, which he couldn't draw, stand in a verdant meadow beside a stream.
The paintings from Hassam's two visits cover three distinct regions or subject matters: (1) the Oregon Coast (1904); (2) Wood's Portland home (1908); and (2) the Eastern Oregon desert in Harney County (1908). The exhibit also includes some other works of Hassam, such as a few of his nearly 400 etchings he did in the last decades of his life (d. 1935) and some paintings of Eastern (U.S.) scenes from the beginning of the 20th century.
Hassam left us nearly forty paintings from his Oregon trips. About half of them are in the exhibit. Three things that didn't fully make sense for me, however, are the choice of earlier paintings, the curatorial description of his 1904 visit and the inclusion of some San Francisco paintings from 1914. First, in order to set the context, the exhibit includes some paintings from the earlier (as well as later) work of Hassam, e.g., an arresting sketch of Provincetown, MA (1900) probably from a hillside overlooking the town and harbor. But the PAM also owns some works of Hassam in its regular collection and they weren't included in the exhibition. Why not?
Second, in describing Hassam's very brief 1904 stay in Oregon, the museum description only has, "Though called away after only a few weeks, he vowed to return." What? In fact, as I understand it, Hassam was a heavy drinker and was so iniebriated during his first Oregon trip that they had to take him to hospitals to dry out before sending him packing back to the East. Are we trying to whitewash Childe here? Third, why include the 1914 pictures from CA, even if one of them (of the Golden Gate, 20 years before the bridge was built) is eye-catching? Maybe it was just too good an image to lose, but it does point to some thematic discontinuity in the exhibit.
The Paintings Themselves
Any survey must be incomplete and subjective. So, here goes. From his 1904 ouevre, I liked the painting of Ecola State Park from the North looking South. The curved beach, the vari-colored trees, with the slightest indication of a clear cut or a fire, the brownish borders of the painting "fading into" the frame, the crashing tide, all of these give the painting an aura of verisimilitude and allure. The only thing that doesn't "fit" in the painting for me is Haystack Rock. To be sure, it can be seen from Ecola, but Hassam makes it look like Haystack Rock is an extension of the coast of Ecola rather than being five miles south in Cannon Beach.
From his 1904 works also are his and Wood's paintings of the Snake River in Eastern Oregon. Though Hassam did his work with little or no "touch up," it appears that Wood's painting of the nearly identical scene was touched up by him over the next few years. In these pictures we see Hassam wrestling with a new landscape and new light and cloud formations for him. Sagebrush, high desert, distant mountains, all of these new features both attracted and challenged Hassam.
The longer 1908 trip, beginning in early September, resulted in a rare still life (fruit in Wood's home) as well as a triptych, where the Wood fruit is flanked by two forest scenes that could be seen from Wood's screened porch. But perhaps the most engaging and memorable paintings from 1908 are the Harney County scenes. The exhibit entrance consists of a large photograph of a strapping Hassam (age 49) painting shirtless in plein-air with Wood painting nearby. The photograph was taken by Charles Carey, friend of Wood, and better known by Oregon lawyers as one of the founding members of Oregon's largest law firm (Stoel Rives LLP, where I practiced from 2000-2003). Even more significantly, however, he was the author of The Oregon Constitution (1924--containing news accounts of debates over the Oregon constitution during the ratification convention of 1857) which, in an age of fundamentalist historical interpretion by the Oregon Supreme Court (as today is), is still the book most cited by Oregon appellate lawyers.
My favorite painting from the Oregon high desert in 1908 was one entitled Thunderstorm on the Oregon Trail. On the reverse of this painting is said to be a sketch of a NYC cityscape. Apparently a storm crept up quickly while he was in Eastern Oregon and, with only this canvas available, Hassam saw something that was simply too good to lose and painted the picture. Thus, he captures the atmospheric wealth of an Eastern Oregon storm--the lowering clouds, darting fingers of darkness, shadowed landscape. When you look at this painting, your eyes are naturally also drawn to his other Eastern Oregon paintings, where the sky occupies a much larger portion of the canvas than the land. One gets the impression that for the first time Hassam truly learned to appreciate the sky when he visited Oregon in 1908.
I looked at these paintings with a greater degree of detachment than either the Boston Common or Old Lyme paintings. Nevertheless, the Oregon paintings inspire. They inspire because of the friendship that produced them, the willingness of a master to learn from nature's unlimited store of lessons, and varied harvest that resulted. The exhibit is certainly worth a few hours of your time.