The mystery location of a hillside landscape in Harlem

In the 1920s and 1930s, Aaron Douglas was a major player in the Harlem Renaissance, developing his signature style of painting two-dimensional graphic images of Black men and women that revealed “self-determination and defiance,” as The Art Story described them.

At an unknown date, he also painted this moody landscape of Harlem. In a departure from his better-known work, Douglas depicts a row of dramatic buildings high on a hillside, the riverfront dotted with modest dwellings below.

But where exactly is this scene?

Douglas and his wife lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, a 13-story apartment house in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem with a commanding view of the Harlem River Valley, according to a 1994 article by Christopher Gray in the New York Times. Other elite tenants included Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. DuBois, and Walter White.

Though none of the hillside buildings in the painting resemble number 409, I wonder if this scene isn’t farther north on Edgecombe (officially in Washington Heights), where the avenue overlooks Coogan’s Bluff and the Polo Ground Towers, former home of the Polo Grounds.

The topography there is steep and thick with trees. Then again, this could be West Harlem overlooking an entirely different river, the Hudson. The derrick in the water is another mystery, perhaps it’s for drilling a subway tunnel.

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3 Responses to “The mystery location of a hillside landscape in Harlem”

  1. The Literate Chef Says:

    I too thought of Coogan’s Bluff, but I don’t think that’s the location as the foreground does not appear to depict enough flat land, where the Polo Grounds was and a housing project presently is. Therefore I’d go with the Hudson view, maybe around 116th street which is pretty high and the bluff is closer to the river than us the case on the east side.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Definitely possible that this is the Hudson. I wonder how different Coogan’s Bluff and the Polo Grounds were at the time this was painted, if the topography changed because of development.

  2. velovixen Says:

    I also think it’s the Hudson, simply because there isn’t a hill near the Harlem or East Rivers that would command such views.

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