An Impressionist artist captures the rural feel of early 1900s Upper Manhattan

Throughout his life, painter Ernest Lawson lived in many places. Born in Halifax in 1873, Lawson moved to New York at 18 to take classes at the Art Students League.

“High Bridge at Night, New York City”

Over the years he studied and worked in Connecticut, Paris, Colorado, Spain, New Mexico, and finally Florida, where his body was found on Miami Beach in 1939—possibly a homicide or suicide.

“Shadows, Spuyten Duyvil Hill”

But if there was one location that seemed to intrigue him, it was Upper Manhattan—the bridges and houses, the woods, rugged terrain, and of course, the rivers.

“Ice in the RIver”

From 1898 to about 1908, while fellow Ashcan School artists focused their attention on crowded sidewalks and gritty tenements, Lawson lived in sparsely populated Washington Heights, drawing out the rural beauty and charm of the last part of Manhattan to be subsumed into the cityscape.

“Boathouse, Winter, Harlem River”

“Less committed to social realism than his peers, his works are more remarkable for their treatment of color and light than their social relevance,” states the National Gallery of Canada.

“A House in the Snow, the Dyckman House”

Lawson’s Upper Manhattan is an enchanting, often romantic place, which he rendered in “thick impasto, strong outlines, and bold colors,” according to His nocturnes reflect the seasonal beauty of still-extant spots like the High Bridge, Harlem River, Spuyten Duyvil, and the Dyckman Farmhouse (the last Dutch colonial-style farmhouse in Manhattan).

“The Harlem River (Rivershacks)”

Though one critic described him as “a painter of crushed jewels,” according to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), and another noted his “peculiar power of finding sensuous beauty in dreary places,” Lawson never found fame like Ashcan painters George Luks and John Sloan.

Portrait of Ernest Lawson by fellow Ashcan artist William Glackens

“Despite great acclaim from certain critics, Lawson remained under-appreciated in his lifetime, and was often depressed and struggling financially,” per PAFA. His name may not be well-known, but Lawson captured the mood and feel of Upper Manhattan’s landmarks and landscape just before urbanization arrived.

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18 Responses to “An Impressionist artist captures the rural feel of early 1900s Upper Manhattan”

  1. Adrian Lesher Says:

    Thanks for this. Very enjoyable paintings. I see there is a well-written and thorough Wikipedia page about Lawson.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, and several other museums and art sites also have biographical info. Lawson deserves better recognition here in NYC!

  2. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    I had been in the area but once in my life, Spuyten Duyvil etc, and was awed by where I was. This ain’t NY, I kept thinking… Sure hope it’s mystery of age is still there.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      It doesn’t feel like the Manhattan I know, which is why I love going up there—just an A train ride away!

  3. Ann Haddad Says:

    Thanks for this, Esther. He was unknown to me! “Crushed jewels,” indeed!!!

  4. Lusskin, Shari Says:

    Hi Esther. I’m not sure if an email sent this way will reach you—but with any luck it will. I so enjoyed your tour of riverside drive in October. I’d like to know if you would be Interested in leading a tour of upper Manhattan and the Highbridge sometime in the spring. Three of my medical school colleagues and I have been doing mini reunions every six months or so. A highlight is taking a tour of off the beaten path New York City. Of course we would pay you directly, rather than through the New York adventure club. Let me know if you’re interested and how much you would charge. Wishing you a happy and healthy new year. All the best, Shari

    Shari I. Lusskin, MD

    Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Science

    Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

    Attending in Psychiatry

    The Mount Sinai Hospital

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    161 Madison Avenue, Rm 10NW

    New York, NY 10016

    Tel: 212 779 3660

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    For all medical and administrative matters, please contact the office at2127793660. Dr. Lusskin does not address clinical matters by email.

    The information in this email may be confidential and may be legally privileged. It is intended solely for the addresses(s). If you are not the intended recipient, any disclosure, copying, distribution, or any action taken or omitted to be taken in reliance on this email is prohibited and may be unlawful. If you have received this email in error please notify the sender by reply email and delete the message


    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Hi Shari, it would be my pleasure—and a great reason to revisit the High Bridge, my favorite NYC bridge. Let’s talk off the board. Can you email me at ephemeralnewyork @ gmail ?

  5. countrypaul Says:

    I often wish I could have seen Manhattan before urbanization. The artists who painted it certainly made it look romantic, and the rusticness of its northern end often seemed to me to be at least hinted at in the more rural blocks of Riverdale.

    Also, please contact me if you decide to take Dr. Lusskin up on her offer. I think a tour like that would be fascinating.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Will do, CP! I find Lawson’s Inwood and Washington Heights to not be all that different from these neighborhoods today. With the hilly terrain and rivers side by side, plus Spuyten Duyvil, the area feels very romantic and rustic, as you wrote. It’s urbanized, but so close to nature.

  6. Greg Says:

    Thanks for this. Though I haven’t spent much time that part of the city I too have long felt there was a certain magic to it. Nice to see the sentiment shared and depicted so artfully.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Glad you enjoyed it—Lawson needs a bigger profile, and his focus on Upper Manhattan makes him unique for his era.

  7. velovixen Says:

    I lived a few blocks from the Dyckman House about 30 years ago. I always marveled that it, Inwood Hill and Fort Tryon Park (home of the Cloisters) had escaped the changes that had occurred,, or were occurring in the rest of Manhattan.

    I, too, love the High Bridge and was very happy when it opened to pedestrians and cyclists a few years ago.
    The painting captures the way the bridge fit—and still fits—into the landscape.

    One thing I found really interesting about the Boathouse and Dyckman House paintings is that they show us there are aspects of the landscape that don’t change even as the area develops. I am thinking specifically of the bluish-grayish winter light and the way the bare trees “scrape” the sky.

  8. Tom B Says:

    I really enjoyed these paintings and it was very well written.
    We were up there on the Circle Line Cruise. Tricky navigation that day. Thanks Esther.

  9. Winter Scenes of Upper Manhattan – The Harlem Neighborhood Block Association Says:

    […]… […]

  10. Punto Says:

    I ended up here via a link from a March 2022 post about the paintings of this artist and I was amazed to see these paintings, until now unknown to me. I have been a resident of the Inwood neighborhood, depicted in all of the paintings except the one of the nearby Highbridge and feel a deep interest in all of the area’s history. I thank you for this, though I am a bit frustrated to see that this neighborhood is not mentioned by its name. Yes, Upper Manhattan and Spuyten Duyvil (which is technically an area of the Bronx) are appropriate but a bit less than a full description. Trust me; we residents of Inwood call it Inwood ten times more often than the other terms (and never Washington Heights!)

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