The enduring appeal behind an iconic Boston painting
When college students decorate their dorm rooms this fall, many will turn to posters of “At Dusk (Boston Common at Twilight),” a Boston streetscape painted by noted impressionist Childe Hassam in the 1880s. The painting is the best-selling postcard at the Museum of Fine Arts, where it’s on permanent display. Now it’s also the subject of a new book, “At Dusk: Boston Common at Twilight” that looks at why the evocative scene became such a popular work of art.
“At Dusk,” depicts an early-evening scene on Tremont Street as Hassam — then a young artist — would have observed it from his nearby studio. Street lamps are lit, snow is on the ground, horse carts proceed on a crowded street, a mother pauses on the sidewalk as her two children stop to look at a gathering of birds. Viewed today, there’s a nostalgic air about the painting, though Erica Hirshler, a senior curator at the MFA and author of the new book, says that for Hassam it was a very modern scene.
“The architecture on the left-hand side is all new and the way a woman feels free to walk alone on the street is a late-19th century way of looking at women who were becoming much more publicly active,” she says.
Hirshler loved the painting as a college student herself. She was drawn to write about it now because the neighborhood transformations happening in Boston today reminded her of the changes going on in Hassam’s time. Then, Tremont Street was turning commercial and its former residents were moving to Back Bay. Now the makeovers are happening in the Seaport and South End.
This sense of continuity, Hirshler believes, is central to the painting’s popularity. The horse carts have been replaced by the T, the buildings have changed, but that stretch along Boston Common remains unmistakable.
“You know that place, most of us have been to that place.” Hirshler says. “It’s very familiar, but at the same time you’re transported back 140 years ago. It’s familiar and different at the same time.”