A painter who said the subway was his art school

New York artists have always found inspiration in the subway. But few were so taken by their fellow passengers that they whipped out a piece of newsprint and sketched faces in the middle of a ride.

Joseph Solman did. Born in Russia but an American since childhood, he studied at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design.

Despite his formal training, Solman maintained that “he had learned more by sketching on buses and subways,” according to his 2008 obituary in the New York Times.

(Solman died at age 99 that year in his studio above the Second Avenue Deli.)

“Claiming ‘the subway was his art school,'” stated the Danforth Museum in Massachusetts, he “documented dozens of passengers as he commuted to work as a part-time bookie at the Belmont Park race track in Long Island, NY, in the 1960s.”

“With pencil in hand and the daily racing forms as his paper, Solman used sparing, gestural lines to record random travelers engrossed in their private worlds amidst the public space of the commuter train,” the museum continued.

His gouache portraits are tender and poetic, and different from the more abstract urbanscapes he was known for in the 1930s. In 1935 he became a founder of the Ten, a group of Expressionist painters in New York City.

The Ten co-founder Mark Rothko was also inspired by the subway, envisioning the platform as a bare, silent place where people stand close but remain in their solitary worlds.

Solman shared a similar sensibility. “Solman’s subway paintings eloquently capture the tenor of the commuter train, which can be a metaphor for urban America: both crowded and noisy, yet ironically isolated and self-contained,” stated the Danforth Museum.

His 1960s subway riders don’t look all that different from today’s commuters, right? They stare ahead and avert their eyes, armed with an expression of disinterest or a preoccupation with whatever they are reading. I see them every weekday morning.

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11 Responses to “A painter who said the subway was his art school”

  1. Tommy Dulski Says:

    Absolutely fantastic, very reminiscent of Toulouse Lautrec and Egon Schiele

  2. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    Had a dentist in his building in the 1950s-60s when I was a kid, probably seen him go by, but then there were all kinds of artistic beatniks wandering about. My dentist was right about the 2nd Ave Deli, oh the pastrami smell when I was in pain!

  3. keenanpatrick424 Says:

    The L.I.R.R. is NOT the subway.I never got mugged on the L.I.R.R.

  4. NYC4ME Says:

    About: “I never got mugged on the L.I.R.R.”
    This isn’t the 70’s/80’s anymore and mostly no one gets mugged on our subways (delayed, yes; mugged, no).

    But enjoy suburbia, if you can tolerate the boredom and banality. I hear it’s much cleaner (and whiter) than NYC; and there’s even stoplights and flush toilets now!

    • keenanpatrick424 Says:

      The painter rode the L.I.R.R. in the 60’s .I grew up in east new york bklyn and went to high school in crown hgts. Riding the ‘A’ train. When I met people from L.I. and took the L.I.R.R. it was cultural shock.So clean and civil. Just making a point that he is not a subway painter if he rode on the L.I.R.R. I lived 40 yrs. in Hell’s Kitchen and unable to afford N.Y.C. I now live in Killerdelphia.on 31 bus line. New York is now full of people who are surburbian at heart. So don’t judge me with your jive.

  5. Jim Carrol Says:

    Very nice. Eerily reminiscent of The Simpsons Cartooning style.

  6. petey Says:


  7. Tom B Says:

    I’ve never seen that style of painting, especially on a train (subway or railroad). Relax you two.

  8. keenanpatrick424 Says:

    I am not relaxed when someone who does not know a scintilla about me projects about who I am and where I live or have lived. My point is is that Solman saying he is a subway painter is like Kenny G. saying he is a jazz musician. “It aint necessarily so”

  9. David H Lippman Says:

    I’d like to see these!

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