A painter captures humanity amid the dirt and darkness of a New York alley

Canada-born Impressionist artist Ernest Lawson made his name at the turn of the 20th century as a landscape painter—often depicting the still-rural Washington Heights neighborhood where he lived from roughly 1898 to 1908.

Yet when he turned his eye to the grit of city streets, he captured something equally evocative.

The 1910 painting he called “New York Street Scene” reveals the dirt and darkness of a narrow lane or alley, the discolored backs of buildings made uglier by the fire escapes hanging off them.

But we also see horse-pulled carts, vendor stalls, and vague figures on the sidewalk on the left—bits and pieces of humanity in the hidden pockets of the urban, industrial city.

[Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]

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9 Responses to “A painter captures humanity amid the dirt and darkness of a New York alley”

  1. pontifikator Says:

    This is anything but rural and the entry says it was filed under “Lower East Side”. I can’t help but see the Twin Towers in the background, as they were when I peered down West Broadway when I lived in SoHo. Don’t know which tall buildings they were — maybe the Woolworth Building and another.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Somewhere in the financial district is certainly possible. It makes sense because the Lower West Side was a food producer/seller district. This view might be from a Lower West Side street looking east to the skyscrapers of the era.

  2. ytfnyc Says:

    I’m inclined to think this is the east 30’s or 40’s looking west at dusk. The street is too wide too long to be an alley. There are signs on the buildings, which is not something one would see on the back side.

  3. velovixen Says:

    It makes sense that, signs notwithstanding, that someone today might mistake the street for an alley. I don’t know when street lighting became widespread in Manhattan, but I imagine that there was less of it around 1910 than there was a century later. Also, with all of the dirt and smoke–and, in some areas, elevated train tracks–city streets, not to mention alleys, would have been darker than they are today.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I didn’t even think of the elevated trains that would be darkening the skies over downtown streets. Even though no tracks are in sight, the elevated would have contributed to the darkness—and the dirt!

  4. countrypaul Says:

    An impressive capture of the city’s grittiness. One imagines the air to be rather polluted, too.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I imagine it had the odor of some of the narrow corners of Chinatown, thanks to the open-air food markets. Not always pleasant but very New York City.

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