Welcome to 2021, Caught In Dot readers! A year filled with, hopefully, much positive change. One room which has undergone drastic changes this week — the Oval Office! A painting that was first donated to the White House in 1963, and hung in JFK’s bedroom, is now in President Biden’s Oval Office. You may be rolling your eyes right now and asking yourself, “Anna, what does this have to do with Dorchester?” But my friends, I promise I’ll get there, in this our newest CiD History Lesson: Frederick Childe Hassam.
Hassam was born in Dorchester, on Olney Street, in 1859. He attended the Mather School, where he had his first lessons in drawing and art. He also attended Dorchester High School, which at the time he attended, was located at Dorchester Avenue and Centre Street. Hassan went to work as a teenager and began to carve the wood blockers used to make illustrations and then he became a freelance illustrator, all here in Boston. During this time he was also painting and creating. He even took classes at the Boston Art Club.
By 1886 Hassam moved to Paris to further study painting, there he embraced the Impressionist Movement. He even took over the studio of Renoir! Hassam liked to paint what he saw: boats, city streets, actual urban and rural life. Some of his favorite places to paint were streets in Boston, New York, Paris and the coasts of New England.
In 1889 Hassam and his wife left Paris and moved back to the United States, this time to New York City. But Hassam would still come to Massachusetts, Gloucester and Provincetown, to paint. Hassam had great success during his life and was considered one of the best American Impressionist painters. His work sold well commercially during his lifetime. In 1916 he began a series which would become his most famous: The Flag Series. Between 1916 and 1918, Hassam painted 30 pieces featuring Flags in all seasons.
The most famous of the Flag Series, is the “The Avenue in the Rain” which is currently hanging in the Oval Office. I’ll let WhiteHouseHistory.org describe the work:
The avenue is Fifth Avenue, frequently decorated with flags as American sentiment moved inexorably from isolationism toward intervention. The artist’s most striking device here is the projection of flags into the picture from unseen points of anchor beyond the frame, covering a quarter of the surface of the painting. In one sense the flags become the surface of the painting, an identity seconded by the tall format, which echoes a flag’s shape.
Painted in February 1917, this work may have had a specific impetus: On January 22 President Wilson had delivered his “Peace Without Victory” address, holding out the ideal of a compromise peace that would leave no residue of bitterness. But sentiment to enter the war had been building since the May 1915 sinking of the British liner Lusitania by a German submarine.
When the German government announced on January 31, 1917, that unrestricted submarine warfare would resume, the president broke off diplomatic relations. Three weeks later a German diplomatic note to Mexico proposing an alliance against the United States was intercepted, and Wilson sought congressional approval to arm American merchant ships. Although a declaration of war was still five weeks away, the turning point had been reached. Patriotic fervor peaked. It is reflected in The Avenue in the Rain, which ultimately is not a street scene, not a painting of flags, but in essence a vibrant flag unto itself.
I think it’s thrilling that the President of the United States and all of the guests that he will receive
in the Oval Office will be inspired by a student of the Mather, by a child a Dorchester, by someone who worked hard during their lifetime and who is still inspiring people today: Childe Hassam!