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Celebrating America's place in the world

Childe Hassam's painting of the Horticulture Building at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago showcases the grandeur of the event. The fair, also known as the Columbian Exposition, was a platform for countries to flaunt their progress in architecture, art, and industry. The painting invites viewers into the lush, magical world of the fair. Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(easy jazz music) - [Beth] We're in the storage room at the Terra Foundation for American Art, looking at a painting by Childe Hassam, Horticulture Building World's Columbian Exposition. What we're looking at is the grounds of the World's Fair that was held here in Chicago in 1893. Sometimes it's called the Columbian Exposition because it was supposed to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the Americas. - [Katherine] Hassam is showing us just one of the buildings on what was a huge space, many buildings built just for this World's Fair. - [Beth] This was a truly spectacular event, and it was the architecture and the grounds that captured people's attention. - [Katherine] The World's Fairs were the occasion for countries to demonstrate how advanced they were in terms of architecture, in terms of art, in terms of industry, everything, and it's only the second time that this young country was able to host a World's Fair. The building that we're looking at is the horticulture building, and the critics at the time were saying that this building had every specimen of plant in the world. We know that can't be true, but we do know that they were taking examples of exotic palm trees and other kinds of plants and putting them on display, so it's not just art, it's not just machinery, it's also the natural world. - [Beth] That gives us a great sense of the incredible ambition of this World's Fair, and some of the greatest architects of the day were involved in building the architecture and creating the landscaping. - [Katherine] We know Childe Hassam was in Chicago before the fair opened. - [Beth] He's here to create images that will be used in souvenir brochures and things like that, so there was an enormous reservoir. There were canals, bridges. There were buildings that looked like they were made of marble and stone that gleamed in the light. The fair got the nickname of the White City. It seemed to people to be almost a cross of Rome and Venice. - [Katherine] And you say it looked like marble because most of the buildings are actually made of stucco and plaster, and they are meant to be temporary, and yet, visually, for the fair-goers, it would be as if they arrived in a magical destination. - [Beth] And as we look at this painting, we feel very much invited to walk into the fair, and we have a pathway that opens before us, benches, people strolling toward us, the horticulture building with the flags, and the grounds look so beautiful. They're lush. - [Katherine] Hassam has done a wonderful job, especially because you have to know he did invent some of this. He had the architectural drawings in front of him. He had seen the building on its way, but he had to invent what would it be like to be there, and he creates an inviting, friendly, safe place. There's a woman and child in the foreground. They look exhausted. They've been walking everywhere, so he tries to give us that sense that we too could be visitors to this fair. - [Beth] We think about paintings in this impressionist style of the late 19th century, this loose, open brushwork that looks very sketchy with this emphasis on bright colors and an interest in light and atmosphere. We think about the artists who painted in that style painting (speaking foreign language), that is, painting outside, and directly from nature, and yet Hassam is inventing this (Katherine laughing) largely in his studio. - [Katherine] It's true, and some of his paintings were painted outdoors, but in this particular painting, perhaps that's the difference between that carefully rendered building that doesn't seem sketchy and quickly painted and the foreground that is more, as we say, impressionistic because of this loose brushwork. - [Beth] Just at this time, Frederick Jackson Turner explains his Frontier Thesis. In fact, Turner delivered the Frontier Thesis at the World's Fair. It's this idea that the frontier had been so important to the creation of an American identity, this continual move westward, and this creation of an American character because of the frontier, but Turner also talks about how that period of American history's ended, and so, the White City, this exposition, points to a new moment for America to reimagine its cities. - [Katherine] And something else that happens at this particular fair is that the American art on display gets a lot of attention. It is as if the critics in this country can finally say, "American art has made something of itself." And Hassam doesn't exhibit this work at the fair, but he does have other paintings on view, and he is among his colleagues exhibiting in this fair that receives international attention. - [Beth] So, the world comes to Chicago in 1893, and Chicago assumes importance in the world thanks to the World's Fair. (easy jazz music)