Hassam’s paintings reflect his fascination with French art, his intense nationalistic pride, and his desire to paint characteristically American subjects. Old Fairbanks House provides an early example of these concerns. Hassam’s painting, with its subdued colors and rural subject, reflects...
Hassam’s paintings reflect his fascination with French art, his intense nationalistic pride, and his desire to paint characteristically American subjects. Old Fairbanks House provides an early example of these concerns. Hassam’s painting, with its subdued colors and rural subject, reflects the interest of Boston artists and collectors in the Barbizon school. They had first become acquainted with works by French Barbizon artists Jean-François Millet [17.1508] and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot [90.199] in the 1850s, when influential artist, teacher, and collector William Morris Hunt introduced the American public to their works. Beginning in 1882, Hassam applied this aesthetic to his New England landscapes, painting pastoral works with such titles as Shelling Peas and Sheep Pasture and exhibiting them at Boston venues. Hassam’s father collected Americana and antique furniture, but the artist’s preoccupation with his Puritan roots and his interest in historic New England structures like the Fairbanks House had probably begun during his early tenure as an illustrator of architectural designs for wood engraver John Lowell. Concurrently, a nationwide preoccupation with the country’s past bloomed at the close of the Civil War and intensified during the centennial celebrations in 1876. These led to the Colonial Revival movement and to an enthusiasm for architectural preservation, particularly of important landmarks in and around Boston. Hassam and many of his fellow artists shared these sentiments and responded to the public’s new-found interest by painting the characteristically American architecture they saw in picturesque towns throughout New England. Considered by many to be the oldest timber-frame house in America, the Fairbanks House had long been a symbol of American colonial history. Early Dedham resident Jonathan Fairbanks built the house around 1636 and his descendants continued living there until after 1900. The Fairbanks family made few if any changes to it: one 1897 guidebook author noted that an Indian arrow had projected from its roof for as long as anyone could remember. Hassam most likely was not alone when he sketched and painted the house in 1884; by that time it had appeared in countless guidebooks and, by 1894, would become so overrun with artists that its resident, Miss Fairbanks, could hardly keep “the dooryard clear of these budding Raphaels.” Ever conscious of his reputation as an artist, Hassam would have recognized that a painting of the Fairbanks House—a well-known symbol of America’s colonial past—would have commercial appeal for a discerning audience intent on preserving the country’s architectural history. In Hassam’s composition, a young woman dressed in brown carries a bucket up a grassy hill framed by ancient elm trees. For Hassam, she serves as a more gentrified (and apolitical) New England version of Millet’s heroic peasants. She may also be related to female figures in landscapes by Winslow Homer, who made the nineteenth-century American countryside his signature subject during the 1870s and whose rural scenes, like The Dinner Horn [1982.639], appeared frequently in Boston exhibitions during the 1880s. Homer’s A Temperance Meeting (1874, Philadelphia Museum of Art) similarly represents a woman carrying a bucket in a rural setting and also depicts a large structure from a low foreground vantage point, but Hassam omits Homer’s narrative in favor of creating a timeless portrait of a specific historic icon. Old Fairbanks House represents a development in Hassam’s career as a colorist and illustrates a transition from the dark palette of the Barbizon artists toward a more Impressionist application of paint. He abandoned the subtle tones of his earlier paintings in favor of sharp greens in the grass, strong browns for the dress, and bright sunlight that silhouettes the woman and the house. When Hassam exhibited the painting prior to his March 1887 auction at Boston’s Noyes, Cobb, & Company, a critic called the work “poetic” and praised the “just relation between the black house and the vivid sky.” Hassam’s painting came into the MFA collection as a gift in 1982. The donor’s grandfather acquired it from an elderly Cape Cod resident, who found the painting in an attic. The family had discarded Hassam’s original frame at some point, but MFA curators and conservators have since reframed the painting with a design consistent with Hassam’s work. Notes 1. Erica E. Hirshler, “Hassam and American Architecture,” in Childe Hassam, American Impressionist, by H. Barbara Weinberg et al., exh. cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004), 295–96. 2. Edwin M. Bacon, Walks and Rides in the Country Round About Boston (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1897), 395. 3. Hirshler, “Hassam and American Architecture,” 296. 4. “Childe Hassam’s Work at Noyes & Cobb’s,” Boston Transcript, [March 1887]. Victoria Ross
Lower left: [crescent] Childe Hassam
About 1884, the artist. Possibly private collection Cape Cod, Mass. George N. Talbot, Brookline, Mass.; by descent to his son, Max Lowell Talbot, Brookline; by descent to his daughter, Kate Talbot (Mrs. Mark) Hopkins, Brookline; 1982, bequest of Kate Talbot Hopkins to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 9, 1982)
Bequest of Kate Talbot Hopkins