1859-1935 | American
Descending the Steps, Central Park
Signed and dated “Childe Hassam 1895” (lower right)
Initialed and dated “C.H. / 1895” (en verso)
Oil on canvas
Childe Hassam was America’s foremost Impressionist painter; no other American artist so fully embraced the tenants of the Impressionist movement. Utilizing the visual vocabulary of the French Impressionists, Hassam’s canvases and their distinctly American subjects are among the most poignant examples of American art at the turn of the century. This oil on canvas, which represents a sunlit view of Central Park, embodies the height of his success, demonstrating his unique style of composition, palette and atmosphere.
Hassam’s work from the mid-1890s is widely considered to be his most important period. He spent the late 1880s studying in Paris, where he found himself immersed in and greatly influenced by the impressionist aesthetic of Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. After he returned to America in 1889, he developed the uniquely American interpretation of Impressionism for which he is celebrated today. Descending the Steps, Central Park embodies this highly original style.
This work of art exemplifies the three specific subjects for which he was most acclaimed: the woman of leisure, natural beauty and New York City landmarks. Only rarely did he combine his skill in all three genres in the same painting. This work, however, has it all – fashionable women in New York City’s most famous public park. A sense of graceful movement is felt in the figures that he captures, while his light-filled, jewel-like palette recalls the great canvases of the French Impressionists such as Monet. It is not merely a masterpiece of American Impressionism, but also of modern art as a whole.
The first American artist to gain renown as a painter of city views, Hassam captured a variety of scenes around New York during the late 1880s and 1890s. After moving in 1893 to the Rembrandt Studio Building at 152 West Fifty-seventh Street, he began to explore his new neighborhood — which included Central Park — on canvas. Descending the Steps, Central Park is one of only a handful the artist ever composed of this oasis, though Central Park has since proven to be one of his most important subjects. Two of the top four most expensive Hassam’s to ever appear at auction depict Central Park; his Spring in Central Park brought $5,641,000 at Christie’s in 2008, while his Central Park achieved $4,512,500 in 1998. Both of these works bear similarities to the present composition, capturing women and children of the leisure class in verdant surroundings.
Descending the Steps, Central Park demonstrates why the Park was the perfect subject for the famed American Impressionist. The scene is awash with color and light, as it captures a fashionable entourage of women and children enjoying the sun-filled day. From the foliage to the swans that grace the pond in the distance, the work celebrates the natural beauty of this idyllic public oasis, which was built as a serene sanctuary amid the frantic urban environment of New York.
By the end of the 19th century, Central Park was already the grandest public park in the United States. It spanned over 800 acres of rolling hills, meadows and forests dotted with ponds and lakes such as the one seen in the present work. When it opened to the public in the late 1850s, the park provided a place of respite for an urban population that was undoubtedly feeling the effects of rapid industrialization. Hassam's portrayal of this public space pays homage to this urban green space that remains as important today as it was over 150 years ago. Through his impressionist gaze, the tranquility and significance of the nation's greatest public park is poignantly recorded in Descending the Steps, Central Park.
The important work also claims pristine condition and a stellar provenance, having been purchased by M.S. Rau directly from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. After its creation in 1895, Hassam kept it in his own personal collection until his death in 1935, a testament to the artist’s affinity for the work. It eventually entered the collection of the great American art collector Hildegarde Graham van Roijen, who bequeathed it to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art following her death in 1993. Throughout its history, it has been widely exhibited at museums around the world, including the Museo di Santa Giulia (Brescia, Italy) and the New York Botanical Garden.
As the vast majority are still held by museums, works of this caliber by Hassam are rarely seen on the market. Other views of New York City by Hassam can be found in collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Phillips Collection (Washington D.C.) and the Tweed Museum of Art (Minnesota).
Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Hassam began his artistic career as a freelance illustrator, working for nation-wide publications such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s Monthly and The Century. His first solo exhibition of watercolors took place in Boston in 1883, and he quickly catapulted onto the international scene, winning a bronze medal at the Exposition Universale in Paris in 1889. The year before the present work was created, he received the Webb Prize from the Society of American Artists for another landscape painted at Gloucester. Hassam would receive numerous other awards over the course of his career, most notably the Gold Medal for Distinguished Services to Fine Art from the American Dealers Association. A true master, Hassam depicted a way of life characteristic of both American and French society, and his work elucidates an important chapter in American art history.
This important work will be included in Stuart P. Feld and Kathleen M. Burnside’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work.
Canvas: 22” high x 22” wide
Frame: 35” high x 35” wide
The Artist in the Park: A Benefit for the Central Park Conservancy, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 29 April - 30 May 1980
Diversities and Discoveries: Recent Acquisitions of 19th and 20th Century American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, Adams-Davidson Gallery, Washington D.C., 30 October - 10 December 1987
Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, Jordan-Volpe Gallery, New York, 10 April - 6 July 1994
America around 1900: Impressionism, Realism, and Modern Life, Virginia Museum of Fine Art, 14 June - 17 September 1995; Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, FL, 27 October 1995 - 14 January 1996
America! Storie di pittura dal Nuovo Mondo, organized by Linea D'Ombra and held at Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia, Italy, 24 November 2007 - 4 May 2008
Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas, The New York Botanical Garden, 13 May – 30 October 2016; The Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, 3 February – 16 May 2017
Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas, New York Botanical Garden, 2016, by L. Ferber, ed. p.33, fig.19 (illustrated)
American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts with the University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2010, by E. O’Leary, S. Yount, S.J. Rawles, and D.P. Curry, p. 302, fig. 173 (illustrated)
America! Storie di pittura dal Nuovo Mondo, Treviso: Linea d’ombra Libri, 2007, by M. Goldin ed., p. 468, cat. no. 102 (illustrated)
American Impressionism, Abbeville Press, New York & London, 2001, by W.H. Gerdts, pp. 311-313, color pl. 400 (illustrated)
"City Parks and Private Gardens in Paintings of Modern America, 1875-1920," The Changing Garden, Stanford University Press in assoc. with University of Calif. Press, by C.M. Osborne, p. 67 (illustrated)
“What’s in a Frame,” The Gilded Edge in America, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2000, by D.P. Curry, p. 145
Childe Hassam: American Impressionist, Prestel-Verlag, Munich and New York, 1994, by U.W. Hiesinger, pp. 99, 101, fig. 107 (illustrated)
Childe Hassam: Impressionist, Abbeville Press, New York and London, 1999, by W. Adelson, pp. 43-45, no. 44
“A Dali for Christmas Virginia Museum gets major surrealist painting,” Richmond Times Dispatch, Dec. 24, 1993, by S. Connor, p. D-1 (illustrated)
By bequest to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 1935
Milch Galleries, New York, 1943
Hildegarde Graham van Roijen, Washington D.C., 1943
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, by gift from the estate of the above, 1993
M.S. Rau, New Orleans, 2019