Childe Hassam, Allies Day, May 1917
Oil on canvas, 36½ in. x 30¼ in.
1917, National Gallery of Art (U.S.)
This has long been one of my favourite paintings, ever since I first saw it one day when I was very young while it was on loan to the Metropolitan. On a May day in 1917, Fifth Avenue was temporarily proclaimed “the Avenue of the Allies” and the British and French commissioners paraded down the boulevard with great ceremony. Childe Hassam set his easel on a balcony on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street and took in the splendid scene towards the Church of St. Thomas and the University Club. Patriotic displays were much more lively then, involving bursts of flags and banners, than the rather dull and monotonous display of the single Stars-and-Stripes that became widespread after the World Trade Center attacks.
Interestingly, “Avenue of the Allies” aside, the United States was not actually allied to France and Great Britain during the First World War. President Wilson thought the United States was not so lowly as to merely intervene in a biased manner on the side of those it had lent money, but rather for the high-minded goal of establishing justice (or, as we might honestly call it, the destruction of Catholic Europe). The U.S., then, was merely a “co-belligerent” rather than an “ally”, though obviously this high-minded euphemism was lost on most people. During the Second World War, Finland found itself invaded by the Soviet Union and abandoned by the West, so — having no taste for Hitler and his Nazi charades — they became “co-belligerents” with Germany, rather than concluding a more distasteful alliance.
Hassam, who died in 1935, had little time for the avant-garde schools of art that came after the Impressionism he practised, and described modernist painters, critics, and art dealers as a cabal of “art boobys”. He was almost forgotten in the decades after his death, but the rising tide of interest in Impressionism from the 1970s onwards lifted even the boats of American Impressionists, and his Flags series of paintings are widely-known and much-loved today.