Childe Hassam, Allies Day, May 1917

Hassam’s Impressionist painting provides a visual form of optimism on the very brink of America’s entry into the First World War.

Childe Hassam, Allies Day, May 1917, 1917, oil on canvas, 92.7 x 76.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Speakers: Dr. Bryan Zygmont and Dr. Steven Zucker

0:00:04.9 Dr. Steven Zucker: We’re at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and we’re looking at Childe Hassam’s “Allies Day, May 1917.” This is a painting that is stridently patriotic.

0:00:17.2 Dr. Bryan Zygmont: But it’s patriotic in a different kind of way because it not only is about the United States, it’s about the United States’ relationship with the other countries that have been engaged in World War I almost three years now. This work was completed on May 17th 1917 about six weeks after the United States finally entered the First World War.

0:00:42.3 Dr. Zucker: It’s as if we’re leaning out the window, we’re craning our necks to look northward. We can see just a tiny sliver of the building that we’re in on the right side and so we are a participant. We are a part of this moment. We see the recession of Fifth Avenue stretching north towards Central Park viewed from about 52nd Street. But that recession is interrupted by these flat planes of color, these flags, this celebration of these nations coming together and the pageantry and brilliance and beauty that Hassam is offering us, is in such stark contrast to the brutality of the battlefields in Europe at this time.

0:01:24.6 Dr. Zygmont: For over a century the United States had been an isolationist country. The Monroe Doctrine of the early 19th century laid claim to North America for the United States but it also restricted American involvement with the kinds of conflicts that had been happening in Europe during the next century.

0:01:42.6 Dr. Zucker: The one major exception to that had taken place in 1898 when the United States was involved in a series of wars against the Spanish and briefly took Cuba, the Philippines, gained control of Hawaii and took Puerto Rico. And yes the U.S. had been really reluctant to get involved but the Germans were posing too much of a threat and Germany’s U-boats, that is their submarines, had sunk the Lusitania, a passenger ship with many Americans on board.

0:02:10.5 Dr. Zygmont: When we consider the atrocities of the First World War—we had machine guns, we had mustard gas, we had killing on a scale unseen in the history of warfare and then Hassam gives us this image.

0:02:25.8 Dr. Zucker: This is a painting that exudes optimism in the way that the Impressionists portrayed Paris in the years after the Franco-Prussian War. In fact, this painting has such a close parallel to Claude Monet’s Boulevard Capucines where the people are mere dashes but that was a painting from decades earlier and yet that same technique, Impressionism is being applied now in the 20th century.

0:02:52.1 Dr. Zygmont: During the late 19th century the Impressionists were most well known for their plein air painting technique, taking their canvas, their palette and their paints outside and painting the scene exactly as they saw it on any given day. Their paintings were a snapshot in time, there were no preliminary sketches, there’s a kind of immediacy and spontaneity of Impressionist paintings. And this artist has captured something very similar with this and it’s even reinforced by the date on the canvas which isn’t May 1917, it’s the 17th of May 1917. This was painted on a single sun-drenched early morning.

0:03:31.1 Dr. Zucker: The light is catching the facets of the neo-gothic church that is across the street. This is the sun at a particular moment in time, it’s not even just a particular day, it’s a particular hour. The flags are rustling, the people are walking, the cars are driving down the avenue. This is a celebration of the metropolis, this is a celebration of the grandeur of Fifth Avenue.

0:03:54.0 Dr. Zygmont: And this is a different view of the city than the artists who surrounded Hassam at the same time took. We could recall the Ashcan painters who showed a kind of gritty underbelly of the city. There’s nothing about this image that is gritty, it’s beautiful, it’s sunlit and it’s colorful.

0:04:13.8 Dr. Zucker: The city, the people, the cars, the park, the buildings dissolve and what comes to the fore are the flags.

0:04:22.0 Dr. Zygmont: This painting provides a visual form of optimism on the very brink of America’s entry into the First World War.

This work at the National Gallery of Art

Franklin Kelly with Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis, American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 283–87.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Bryan Zygmont and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Childe Hassam, Allies Day, May 1917," in Smarthistory, May 28, 2024, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/childe-hassam-allies-day-may-1917/.