The crossroads of Gilded Age life, as seen by a little-known New York painter

By 1895, just about all of Manhattan was urbanized. Central Park, completed only 30 years earlier far north of the main city, was now centrally located. In three years, the consolidation of Greater New York would be complete, and the city would take the shape we know today.

But the heart of the Gilded Age city was still Madison Square, a crossroads of business, shopping, nightlife, and culture. Above, artist Theodore Robinson painted the corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street with all the action and activity to be expected in the mid-1890s.

Missing from Robinson’s painting is the Flatiron Building, of course; the iconic skyscraper didn’t open until 1902. But to the left in the foreground is the Fifth Avenue Hotel, the meeting place of business and political movers and shakers. Farther up is Marble Collegiate Church, built in the 1850s and one of the city’s oldest most elite congregations.

Horses power carriages along the paved avenue. Skirt hems skim the sidewalks. You can practically hear the conversation between the smartly dressed young man and the driver. Streetcars travel up and down 23rd Street, ferrying daytime shoppers to grand department stores like Stern Brothers and nighttime theatergoers.

Robinson is a new name for me. Born in Vermont, he came to New York in the 1870s and returned again after stints in Europe, according to the National Gallery of Art. His depiction of Union Square (above), also an important Gilded Age location, seems closer to his pioneering Impressionist style.

Robinson died in New York in 1896 at age 43 after a lifelong fight with severe asthma, per a New York Times review of an exhibit held in 2005. His name isn’t well known, but his work capturing the street life of the Gilded Age lets us feel the energy and excitement of the city on the cusp of the 20th century.

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2 Responses to “The crossroads of Gilded Age life, as seen by a little-known New York painter”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Indeed, very visceral and quite delightful. Thank you for shedding light on this artist. For the record, I prefer the top painting, which feels as though it is one of those golden sunsets which show up occasionally and can cast a magical light for a few special moments. But I am to art as my wife is to music; I don’t know what I’m “supposed to be seeing” (or in her case hearing); I just know that I like it or I don’t.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I prefer the top painting too for its detail. It’s like a porthole to a regular day on Fifth Avenue 130 years ago.

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