The castles and villages of 1914 Lower Manhattan

For a painting with such a perfunctory name, “Municipal and Woolworth Buildings, Lower Manhattan,” by Lionel S. Reiss, gives us a stunning look at a two-tiered city.

In the distance is the New York of concrete canyons and tall buildings reaching toward the heavens, ethereal and dreamlike. In the foreground are the the tenements of the people, in hearty earth tones that reflect the life and activity happening inside them.

Born in 1894 in Jaroslaw Poland, Reiss grew up on the Lower East Side; he would have had a front-row seat to the changing landscape around City Hall and the Financial District in the early 1900s. After working as a commercial artist in the 1920s, he traveled through Europe and North Africa, returning to New York City before World War II.

“One of the central themes of Reiss’ art was that of every day street life, replete with its class distinctions and social strata,” stated one source, a Jewish research archive that includes his work. In this 1914 painting, Reiss seems to be depicting class distinction by painting two skyscrapers as Medieval castles and the tenements as the village surrounding them.

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9 Responses to “The castles and villages of 1914 Lower Manhattan”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Nice concept.

  2. jms Says:

    And behold — at the far left is the Singer Tower! Moving right from it one sees the City Investing Building, the Park Row Building, and the NY World / Pulitzer Building. And in the middleground is what I’m guessing are the twin turrets of the Henry Street Synagogue of Congregation Shaare Zedek, unless anyone has a better theory. I wonder what happened to it.

    Reiss makes things a lot easier than Horton.

  3. Michael Towers Says:

    According to Wikipedia, Lionel is credited with creating the Leo the Lion symbol for MGM

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I should have added that to the post. Impressive, since the symbol is still used a century later!

  4. BobD Says:

    He was only 20 years old when he painted that!

  5. Bill Wolfe Says:

    Thanks for posting this, yet another enjoyable artist whose work I’ve been exposed to here first. Your critique of the painting is excellent. The tall buildings in the distance called to mind our first view of the Emerald City in the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you Bill, I heard that Emerald City comparison from another person who’d never seen the painting before but was struck by it.

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