Twenty years ago, long before this blogger had any significant connection to Washington Square Park, my parents gave me a book, Childe Hassam’s New York, with this photo on the cover. My father inscribed it: “For a true New Yorker.” I don’t know if I really was then – it was meant as a true compliment. Little did I know that blogging would be in my future, that blogs would even exist, or that I would be writing, in any form, about Washington Square Park. There were other things from him that, in strange ways, pointed to this park in retrospect.
This portrait is by Childe Hassam (1859-1935) – “one of America’s earliest and most significant impressionists” – painted in 1890 when the artist lived near the park. Hassam was born in Boston, trained in Paris, and “fell in love with New York” after moving to the city in 1889.
The book, curated by Ilene Susan Fort, features many of Hassam’s “urbanscapes” from that period in NYC. Quoting from Marianne Griswold Van Rensselaer’s piece “Picturesque New York” from The Century (Magazine) 45, written in 1892, she wrote about the park:
“… [Washington Square] is the boundary-line between very poor and crowded and very well-to-do and roomy streets of homes – South Fifth Avenue with its teeming French, German, and negro population, ending against one of its sides, and the true Fifth Avenue starting from another.”
The painting, officially titled Washington Arch, Spring, 1890, was acquired in 1921 by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.:
The arch, sited on Washington Square at the southern end of Fifth Avenue, made clear Hassam’s reference to a similar monument, the Arc d’Triomphe in Paris. The New York arch, designed by Stanford White, commemorated the one-hundredth anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration. Hassam’s residence at was just north of the Square, so he was able to watch the progress of construction, first a temporary wood and plaster structure, finished in 1889, followed by a permanent marble arch completed in 1892.
Hassam chose a vantage point at street level. Partially blocked by trees; the arch could be seen in the near distance at the end of Fifth Avenue, shown at a diagonal that sweeps into the composition. Although he employed an asymmetrical design and a light palette, as favored by his French impressionist predecessors, Hassam, like most of his American counterparts, preferred not to sacrifice structure and solid form to the fragmenting effects of broken color. He still sought the momentary and fleeting, however, remarking on his interest in watching the bustle of people on the streets as they went about their daily life. Hassam included several pedestrians in Washington Arch, along with a street cleaner and a horse-drawn carriage. He remained a detached observer, however, focusing on the larger, overall view, and capturing a genteel, sunny, picturesque world.