An artist paints the end of rural Upper Manhattan

Upper Manhattan was the last part of the island to be developed, and well into the late 19th and even early 20th century, large swaths of Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood still retained a rural character—with woods, fishing boats, even cow pastures.

That unspoiled, bucolic feel is apparently what drew Gustav Wolff to the upper reaches of the city.

Wolff, a German-born landscape painter who studied in St. Louis with Impressionist Paul Cornoyer, arrived in New York in 1917, according to the St. Louis Historical Art Project.

His turned his eye toward “grittier scenes of industrial and urban landscapes,” according to the SLHAP. But it’s his landscapes of a more natural Upper Manhattan that stand out.

The painting at top, “Close of Day, Harlem,” gives us a snow-covered tract of land, with a row of new, encroaching tenements not far behind.

The second image, “Harlem River Factories, New York,” dates to 1894, likely done during an early visit to Gotham. On the eve of the 20th century, Wolff captured a few smokestacks and warehouses amid tugboats and small houses dotting the shoreline.

The steel arch Washington Bridge is clearly recognizable in the next painting, “Washington Heights Bridge, New York.” Opened in 1888, it still stands, linking 181st Street to Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx.

Dyckman Street was a country road in colonial New York—named after the Dyckman family, the Dutch farmers who built the sandstone Dyckman Farmhouse on Broadway and 204th Street, now a museum.

In Wolff’s painting above, “Dyckman Street Docks, Manhattan,” the farms are gone, but urbanization hasn’t yet arrived.

Fort Tryon Park is one of the last vestiges of Upper Manhattan’s rural past. Here, Wolff painted what appear to be children on the rock outcroppings at the Overlook, with tenements and creeping industrialization in the distance.

The overlook lent its name to Overlook Terrace in Hudson Heights, and thanks to the Fort Tryon Park Trust, you can experience it without getting up from your screen.

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12 Responses to “An artist paints the end of rural Upper Manhattan”

  1. Tommy Dulski Says:

    another awesome post, really love the posts that feature paintings

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks! When I came across these I was amazed…how is Wolff not better known?

  3. Barbara W Flanagan Says:

    Where are these paintings now? Any possibility of seeing them in person?

  4. James Britt Says:

    Overlook Terrace is in *Washington* Heights.

    The gentrification name for the predominantly white area is for marketing purposes so potential condo buyers don’t get scared.

  5. Doreen Mangan Says:

    The painter, George Bellows, also did some some works portraying Northern Manhattan!

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I wish I knew where these and other Wolff paintings were. I see online that auction houses and galleries have sold them to collectors.

  7. David H Lippman Says:

    That was the neighborhood my father grew up in as a kid. By then, the bucolic atmosphere was disappearing, except for the farm at 214th Street and Broadway.

  8. Hamilton Terrace is Harlem’s loveliest street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] urbanization came to the bucolic enclave of Harlem in the late 19th century, developers seized his name—and Hamilton Terrace was […]

  9. richard burten Says:

    How can I post my Wolff works for others?

  10. Ellen Wolff Says:

    What are some of the works you have? I have some of his works to share as well.

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