Departing the ferry across the monolith of Lower Manhattan

Born in Michigan in 1865, William Samuel Horton was a prolific Impressionist painter of many landscapes and water scenes, especially in Europe and his adopted country of France, where he died in 1936.

But Horton did spend some time in New York City. He studied at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design, left for Europe, and returned to New York for an unknown period of time in 1924, according to Cincinnati Art Galleries, Inc.

It was during his return in the mid-1920s when he likely painted “Departing the Ferry, New York,” depicting the urban landscape of Lower Manhattan and the hordes of mostly men in straw hats with obscured faces as they empty out of a commuter from the gangplank.

By the 1920s, New York had built several steel bridges crossing the East River. But ferries were still plying the waters, especially to Staten Island and New Jersey. These massive vessels delivered people to and from an office tower city that looks like a monolith. It’s tough to know where we are along New York’s waterways…perhaps Horton didn’t think the exact location mattered.

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13 Responses to “Departing the ferry across the monolith of Lower Manhattan”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    “It’s tough to know where we are along New York’s waterways…perhaps Horton didn’t think the exact location mattered.”

    Artistic license, no doubt. But he certainly captured the feeling.

  2. jms Says:

    More than a little artistic license, even.

    But still … doesn’t the tower a bit left of the flagpole resemble the Bankers Trust Company Building (1912)? And left of that, might the next building show a slight hint of curvature near the top, suggesting the Singer Tower (1908)? And how about the still-taller structure next in line to the left — the Woolworth? Heading right from the flagpole, the two tall towers suggest the Bank of Manhattan Trust (1930) and Cities Service Buildings (1932), the problem there being the dates — after the mid-1920s. I’m stumped by the large building farther to the right; the Standard Oil Building is the closest match that comes to mind. But even if those are the buildings, their arrangement makes no sense to me. Yep, maybe a great deal of artistic license here.

  3. Bill Wolfe Says:

    So this would be an early evening scene, since presumably these people would be coming home from their jobs in Manhattan?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      That’s my impression…I wish I knew for sure, but I found very little about Horton out there.

  4. Edward Says:

    Looks more like an excursion cruise than a typical NYC ferry, especially the thin gangplank coming from the center of the boat instead of the usual double-ended ferries typically seen in New York. The parasols and picnic baskets being held by passengers are also a clue that these are not your workaday ferry commuters. The skyline is rather hard to figure, though this looks like the East River at around 23rd Street (is that the 1909 MetLife building I see to the right of the US flag?). Maybe an excursion docking at Brooklyn waterfront?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks for your comment; I didn’t even consider that it could be an excursion ferry; it seemed the uniformity of the human figures and the gray skyline reminded me so much of work. That certainly could be the MetLife building, but the buildings around it are tough to ID.

    • jms Says:

      Assuming that the painting shows the East River at around 23rd Street and that the building in question is the Met Life Tower, then the shorter building to its right would doubtless be either the Madison Square Garden tower (1891-1926) or the New York Life Building (1928), right? Except that
      • It looks nothing at all like the Madison Square Garden tower.
      • The New York Life Building was completed in 1928 — rather late for the “mid-1920s”. Perhaps it wasn’t painted in the mid-1920s?
      • The New York Life Building is about 88% the height of the Met Life Tower; by measurement, the other building in the painting is only ~75% as tall. And it simply looks too short. (From a Greenpoint pier across the river from 23rd Street, the two buildings would be nearly equidistant.) The MSG tower ought to look even shorter, about 43%. Artistic license?
      • The roof of the 2nd building is not a particularly good match for the New York Life Building as it appeared when built and until 1966 : mainly, the roof angle isn’t steep enough, its sides are too straight toward the bottom, and one might expect to see a more golden hue from its gilt-copper apex. More artistic license?
      • What, then, would be the bulky “wedding cake” building to the left of the ferry mast? And what about those tall towers to the left of the ostensible Met Life Tower, which would have to be mostly in the Village(s)? I can’t think of good matches for any of them.

      In the theory’s favor, note the flat-topped building behind the bottom of the flag: that could represent the Flatiron. All considered, though, I don’t see this as a big improvement on my earlier identification of many of the buildings as being in lower Manhattan, even if their relative positioning is just as confusing!

      Maybe Horton simply took buildings from all over the city and plopped them down wherever he felt they looked good, removing all definitively identifying detail. No Richard Estes he!

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        I do think this isn’t a replica of the skyline; I’ve looked at dozens of images from the 1930s and 1920s and nothing lines up exactly. It feels more like a mishmash of buildings that either exist all over Manhattan, or he obscured the buildings at this particular point along the skyline so no one would recognize it.

      • jms Says:

        If we can’t figure it out … then you’re very likely right: a mishmash, or perhaps an architectural Rorschach Test. Horton did a fine job of covering his tracks.

        So, Ephemeral, did I manage to persuade you regarding the Flatiron Building’s historical status?

      • countrypaul Says:

        I’ll just settle for artistic license and appreciate the work for what it is and represents.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        JMS, I’m not convinced the building behind the flag is the Flatiron! But I’m definitely impressed with your efforts trying to identify the buildings. I’m with Countrypaul on this one: artistic license.

      • jms Says:

        Ephemeral: Oops, sorry, I was referring to this, on the assumption you get notifications of some sort for new comments … but perhaps not for ones on a post dating as far back as 2009? In any case, I’m far from convinced the building in the painting is the Flatiron, either, though I trust I’ve made a better case for its historical status at the link above!

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