Dreams and illusions on 1930s Chambers Street

It’s an ordinary Depression-era day in “View in Chambers Street,” painted by O. Louis Guglielmi in 1936. On this shadowy, marginalized downtown street, we see rundown tenements, sidewalks almost empty of people, and a disorienting perspective.

Faces show little detail, but body language tells us more. A female figure appears to confront another woman sitting on a stoop, and a couple round the corner beside a faded ad, looking downward in different directions.

Amid the despair, though, there’s a strength of the human spirit. Even in rough times, when banks can’t help make dreams come true (see the faded Bowery Savings Bank ad) and even the circus can’t offer any magic (“The Greatest Show on Earth” ad is partially torn), people persist.

The couple look in different directions, but their arms are locked as a team. The rickety baby carriage contains their future.

Guglielmi, who grew up poor in Italian Harlem, painted in the social surrealist style—using abstract, dreamlike images to convey something about society.

His Chambers Street blends a down and out urbanscape with the working poor who live there, who remain stoic in the face of uncertainty.

This Guglielmi painting of a child playing hopscotch beside a stoop on South Street has a similar foreboding quality.

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8 Responses to “Dreams and illusions on 1930s Chambers Street”

  1. Bob Says:

    He re-used elements of this painting like the setting and the posters and figures in the foreground in The Hungry, 1938 (http://www.rcgrossfoundation.org/the-foundation/art-collections/american-art-highlights?view=slider#8) and more loosely in Refugees, 1939 (https://www.dia.org/art/collection/object/refugees-47267)

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Bob for this link. Interesting that the baby carriage is now something of a stroller for items, their belongings.

  3. Ty Says:

    Some homeless still use discarded strollers for their stuff. A statement about our culture for sure.

    The saturated yellow evokes to me sunset right after a heavy thunder storm has passed.

    I felt differently about the intent of the two women. That is the typical New York sitting-on-the-stoop conversational stance. I can almost hear “… and so I says to her I says…”

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Good point—perhaps she’s not confrontational toward the woman on the stoop, just telling a you won’t believe what just happened to me kind of story that’s raised her defenses.

  5. Shayne Davidson Says:

    The message for me is that the city dwellers are fragile and at risk of being overwhelmed by the hard, geometric edges and filth of the buildings. That said, I think it’s a wonderful painting!

  6. David H Lippman Says:

    Which end of Chambers Street is this? Far east or far west? It’s not opposite City Hall or right near it.

  7. trilby1895 Says:

    Guglielmi’s painting casts me into the deepest depths of depression; everything about it; squalor, the drab, unlovely colors, flatness, feeling of total isolation and despair (and not “good” isolation), just ugly, ugly, unrelieved ugliness.

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