Connections: Playing Art Detective

    One of the pleasures of hanging around the East Hampton Star office is the chance to explore its archives, a veritable Wunderkammer of interesting historical tidbits. I sometimes wish I had nothing else to do but go through the crammed old-photo files in the back room, which always yield surprises.
    So it was that in preparing our latest garden supplement — which has a theme this year of trees — I searched the cabinets for images of East Hampton’s Main Street, with its glorious elms.
    One image of the streetscape before the 1938 Hurricane can be seen in the garden section. But what really fascinated me was a black-and-white page from a magazine or catalog of an oil painting by Childe Hassam called “Under the Elms.” The scene was undoubtedly East Hampton, and I got the idea that a full-color image of it would make a perfect cover for the supplement.
    Frederick Childe Hassam is among the most renowned American Impressionists. He summered in East Hampton from 1919 until his death in 1935, and visited here earlier. The photo of “Under the Elms” that I found was dated 1910. It certainly inspired fantasies about what our town was like when it was a dozy rural place, and a few dozen summer visitors were considered a crowd. I was dying to see it in color.
    You can find many images of Hassam’s work on the Internet, some put up by galleries, others by poster companies. I spent too much time at the computer looking unsuccessfully for “Under the Elms.” (And in the process learned that Hassam is credited with an amazing 3,000 works of art: oils, watercolors, etchings, and lithographs.)
    I wasn’t ready to give up the hunt, however, and after making calls to a few local aficionados, got in touch with Terry Wallace of East Hampton’s Wallace Gallery (in the shopping area off Main Street that we used to call Eastman Way). He suggested that I call the Hirsch and Adler gallery in the city, where I spoke with an exceedingly helpful woman who told me to call Sotheby’s. It had recently sold two Childe Hassam paintings at auction.
    Now the trail was getting hot.
    It turned out that one of the paintings auctioned was in fact the one whose image I coveted. Sotheby’s sent me a copy by e-mail, but since it had been sold to a private collector, it could not be released for publication without approval. Given our deadline, the trail had to be considered cold.
    But Terry came to the rescue. He showed me a painting by William J. Whittemore of a girl and small dog in a field backed by flowering trees, which looked a lot like East Hampton, and I decided to use a detail from it for the section’s cover. I can’t wait to see how it turns out, once the hard copies hit the streets Thursday morning.
    Whittemore lived from 1860 to 1955, a long life indeed, and, he, too, lived in East Hampton. He is not as well known as Hassam, who was a contemporary, but I think we can safely consider him “one of ours.”
    Meanwhile, if by any chance there is anyone out there, reading this, who recently bought “Under the Elms” as an ornament to their stately home south of the highway, please give me a ring at The Star. My curiosity is killing me.