A painter drawn to the “Mountains of Manhattan”

Overshadowed by social realist painters and then the abstract movement early in the 20th century, Colin Campbell Cooper never quite got his due.

But his evocative takes on New York’s streetscapes and skyline reveal a fascination with the bigness of the city’s architecture contrasted against the smaller personal stories of millions of anonymous New Yorkers.

The bigness you notice first, especially with paintings like the “Mountains of Manhattan” (top) and the “Cliffs of Manhattan” (second), which both depict the city as an awesome and mighty wonder along the lines of the Rockies or the Alps.

When Cooper contrasts the big and the small, as he does here in 1917’s “South Ferry,” he gives us a more humanistic view of Gotham.

We may not be able to read their faces, but every one of those trolley riders ans sidewalk vendors has a story.

“Chatham Square,” above, from 1919, is similar. The city’s skyscraper mountains are in the background, while the day-to-day life, its human side, is in the forefront.

Commuters wait for the elevated train to pull in, soldiers march under the tracks, and movie houses attract crowds on the sidewalk. We don’t have to be able to see them up close to know they are us.

“New York From Brooklyn” gives us a more detailed and personalized County of Kings. Meanwhile, Manhattan across the river is muted, as if it’s an impenetrable fortress.

Cooper lived in New York from 1904 to 1921. “My pictures are built on these contrasts,” he once said of the juxtaposition in many of his paintings of older, smaller-scale buildings and the modern skyscrapers dominating the skyline.

“Columbus Circle” (above), completed in 1923, illustrates this perfectly.

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14 Responses to “A painter drawn to the “Mountains of Manhattan””

  1. tom dulski Says:

    i really love this blog, especially like your posts on painters who worked in the city.

  2. Keith Goldstein Says:

    Wonderful paintings!

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you both! It’s a pleasure to uncover painters whose names have been lost to history for the most part and give their depictions of New York another chance to be seen.

  4. Zoé Says:

    Blue skies despite all the air pollution from coal furnaces & smokestacks etc. Perhaps he only painted on windy days. (Younger people may not know what I’m referring to. Up until the 80s the sky above Mannyhatty was often beautifully grey due to pollution).

  5. Timothy Grier Says:

    Those of us who grew up surrounded by the Manhattan mountains take them for granted. I know I did. I’ll never forget the time I was taking a bus from one of the airports into Manhattan. It was dark and this was the around 1972. We were approaching Manhattan on the LIE. I was startled when the other passengers audibly gasped and then stared out the front window in silence. I didn’t know what happened. Then I realized that the bus had crested a small rise in the highway and suddenly the illuminated Manhattan skyline was in our faces. The passengers seemed to be European visitors who had never been in America before. The sight of the NYC skyline at night took their breath away. I was amused by the reaction but it made me realize that it is rather stunning.

    • Zoé Says:

      Thank you for this great visceral description & observation Timothy. It is difficult to imagine the City as others seeing it for the first time. (I grew up an hour away on the CT Shore & my dad worked at ABC & then NBC & freelance later where he stayed at the hotels on & near the Park; so we drove in all the time & also flew in – like you – from other places).

      My former husband – from Italy – & I hosted his Italian Navy friend in the early 80s to our *very* tiny LES studio apartment. (10’x11′ w/ separate kitchen & bath… vs – lol – bath in the common hallway). He had a serious panic attack from claustrophobia & left the next day back to Northern Italy. I felt terrible & could not pursuade him to stay.

      He had never been to the City before & the other thing that really freaked him out was the extreme poverty side by side w/ extreme wealth. Homeless people in front of restaurants etc. He was from a town on the border of France & the son of a wealthy factory owner.

      To make matters worse I was very young & the dinner I made that night was loaded w/ hot pepper – so he wouldn’t eat it!

    • Tom B Says:

      Back in the early eighties we took a night time Gray Line tour of NYC. We crossed a bridge and the guide said now look back. It was a spectacular sight to see. The skyline all lit up. Everyone on the bus gasp and was in awe. Amazing!!

  6. nancy anderson Says:

    Loved the Columbus Circle painting. Truly, a bit of City-past I’d never seen. Thanks for the whole post

  7. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    It looks almost nothing like Columbus Circle today, save for the Columbus monument!

  8. David H Lippman Says:

    Beautiful artwork…the views of the old elevated lines, of course, are gone, now.

  9. An artist on the Carpathia paints Titanic survivors | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Cooper had made a name for himself as an Impressionist painter—one who found inspiration in the skyscrapers and modern cityscape of New York, where he lived since […]

  10. Magnificence and magic at 1920s Columbus Circle | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Since last week’s Columbus Circle painting turned out to mislabeled (it was actually Madison Square), I thought I’d make up for the error with this Impressionist kaleidoscope of the Circle, as it was called, by Colin Campbell Cooper. […]

  11. Magnificence and magic at 1920s Columbus Circle | News for New Yorkers Says:

    […] Since last week’s Columbus Circle painting turned out to mislabeled (it was actually Madison Square), I thought I’d make up for the error with this Impressionist kaleidoscope of the Circle, as it was called, by Colin Campbell Cooper. […]

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