Childe Hassam, the son of a Dorchester hardware merchant, had made only one trip to Europe before painting Boston Common at Twilight. He studied French art in Boston collections, and he was familiar with the popular work of painters active in Paris, like Jean Béraud and Giuseppe de Nittis, who took modern life as their main subject and frequently depicted fashionable young women in urban settings. Hassam adapted their French aesthetic to his native city and began a series of large canvases representing several of Boston’s developing neighborhoods: Back Bay, the South End, and Park Square.
Originally an open field for cattle grazing and military parades, the Boston Common had been transformed into an oasis of elm trees and graceful promenades by the time Hassam painted it in the mid-1880s. He chose a view of the Tremont Street Mall, one of five broad tree-lined walkways that provided Boston pedestrians with an elegant alternative to the city’s noisy thoroughfares. The artist doubtless enjoyed it himself, for his studio was just across the street.
Despite the old-fashioned charm Boston Common at Twilight presents to viewers today, in Hassam’s time this scene was distinctly modern. Once an area of elegant residential row houses, many of the streets around the Boston Common recently had been transformed into a lively business district. The red brick buildings visible at left were mostly new; the traffic of trolley cars and carriages on the road marks the bustling commerce of late afternoon; and artificial light glows from streetlights and storefronts. Hassam enhanced his impression of the fast pace of city life by using a perspective scheme in which the vertical lines of the fence, the lampposts, and the trees recede rapidly into the distance, coming closer and closer together.
Hassam contrasted the hurried movement at left with the calm quiet of the snowy park. A stylishly dressed young mother and her child pause to feed the birds while other figures stroll through the rosy dusk. Hassam used a variety of reds to unify his composition, bringing the rusty brick buildings, the glow of the lamps, and even the brilliant end of a lit cigarette in the hand of a passerby into harmony with the sunset sky and the pinkish snow. The artist’s interest in contemporary subjects and in different kinds of light allies this painting with Impressionism, but in Hassam’s gentle vision of the city, nature humanizes the modern world.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
Boston Common at Twilight
- Childe Hassam, American, 1859–1935
- 106.68 x 152.4 cm (42 x 60 in.)
- Medium or Technique
- Oil on canvas
- Accession Number
- On view
- Suzanne and Terrence Murray Gallery (American Impressionism) - 226