A portrait painter’s shadowy figure on a nighttime city street

History has given John Bentz a low profile.

Born in 1853 in Ohio, Bentz may be best known as a portraitist and art restorer. He painted the rich and socially connected, and four years before his death at age 97, he was hired to clean paintings in City Hall, per a 1946 New York Daily News article.

But Bentz also painted landscapes, and one, titled “Journey to the End of the Night,” is this WPA-era nocturne of the cityscape—showing us a bedraggled, whiskered man, his hands in his front pockets looking straight ahead. The rough forms of pedestrians can be seen in the light in the background, around the corner but worlds away from the man.

Could this be a self-portrait of the artist, who would have been well into old age when the painting was completed in the 1930s or 1940s? With a dark sliver of a Gothic church on the left across from the well-lit figure stopped in his tracks under a modern red awning, is it a comment of sorts on death and immortality?

Or perhaps it’s an allegory on the passing of time: the revelers in the background on the sidewalk and on top of a double decker bus oblivious to the fact that one day, they will be the old whiskered man shuffling alone along a New York street.

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5 Responses to “A portrait painter’s shadowy figure on a nighttime city street”

  1. Journey to the End of the Night, John Bentz – This isnt happiness Says:

    […] Journey to the End of the Night, John Bentz […]

  2. Greg Says:

    Strange to imagine someone old enough to have been a bugle boy in the Civil War working such a modern idiom

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I know, his life spanned many eras in NYC and American history.

      • ironrailsironweights Says:

        There probably are people alive today who met John Bentz, who in turn might have known as a child someone born when the United States was still a British colony. Two degrees of separation spanning almost 250 years. It reminds me of the famous case involving the longtime Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, who as a child met the former president John Quincy Adams and who as an old man met the future president John F. Kennedy.

        Peter

  3. Lady G. Says:

    I love the mood of this painting, and the bright,
    warm colors! It seems like a chilly Autumn night. The night sky is beautiful. It has that orange hue i remember so vividly from Brooklyn because of all the street-lamps.

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