Archive for the ‘art’ Category

An artist paints the end of rural Upper Manhattan

October 1, 2018

Upper Manhattan was the last part of the island to be developed, and well into the late 19th and even early 20th century, large swaths of Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood still retained a rural character—with woods, fishing boats, even cow pastures.

That unspoiled, bucolic feel is apparently what drew Gustav Wolff to the upper reaches of the city.

Wolff, a German-born landscape painter who studied in St. Louis with Impressionist Paul Cornoyer, arrived in New York in 1917, according to the St. Louis Historical Art Project.

His turned his eye toward “grittier scenes of industrial and urban landscapes,” according to the SLHAP. But it’s his landscapes of a more natural Upper Manhattan that stand out.

The painting at top, “Close of Day, Harlem,” gives us a snow-covered tract of land, with a row of new, encroaching tenements not far behind.

The second image, “Harlem River Factories, New York,” dates to 1894, likely done during an early visit to Gotham. On the eve of the 20th century, Wolff captured a few smokestacks and warehouses amid tugboats and small houses dotting the shoreline.

The steel arch Washington Bridge is clearly recognizable in the next painting, “Washington Heights Bridge, New York.” Opened in 1888, it still stands, linking 181st Street to Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx.

Dyckman Street was a country road in colonial New York—named after the Dyckman family, the Dutch farmers who built the sandstone Dyckman Farmhouse on Broadway and 204th Street, now a museum.

In Wolff’s painting above, “Dyckman Street Docks, Manhattan,” the farms are gone, but urbanization hasn’t yet arrived.

Fort Tryon Park is one of the last vestiges of Upper Manhattan’s rural past. Here, Wolff painted what appear to be children on the rock outcroppings at the Overlook, with tenements and creeping industrialization in the distance.

The overlook lent its name to Overlook Terrace in Hudson Heights, and thanks to the Fort Tryon Park Trust, you can experience it without getting up from your screen.

An old house and the “human comedy” around it

September 17, 2018

I wish I knew exactly where this old wood house once stood.

All I know is that it was somewhere in today’s Lower East Side, and in 1915 captured the eye of painter Jerome Myers, a Virginia native who moved to New York in the 1880s.

Myers focused his attention on the city’s worst slums, and what he called the “human comedy” that inspired and riveted him.

“Curiously enough, my contemplation of these humble lives opened to me the doors of fancy,” he wrote in 1940. “The factory clothes, the anxious faces disappeared; they came to me in gorgeous raiment of another world—a decorative world of fancy, like an abstract vision. I was led to paint pictures in which these East Side scenes are lost in a tapestry of romance. Reality faded in a vault of dreams…”

The apartment rooftop that hosted Henri Matisse

August 13, 2018

French Modernist painter Henri Matisse has many of his still lifes, figures, and landscapes on display in New York’s most distinguished museums.

But there’s only one place in Manhattan where a little-known framed photo of Matisse is always on display, with the Depression-era city skyline behind him.

You can see it yourself if the doorman decides to give you a peek.

The black and white photo, from 1930, is in the small lobby of 10 Mitchell Place, a charming 13-story prewar apartment house built in 1928 that was originally called Stewart Hall.

Never heard of Mitchell Place? It’s a secret sliver of a street running from First Avenue to Beekman Place in a quiet neighborhood of old world charm—perfect for an artist more accustomed to Nice than New York.

In the photo, Matisse is sitting in a chair on the building’s brick roof terrace. With his left hand holding his bearded chin, the artist looks contemplative amid a backdrop of apartment buildings, water towers, and the Queensboro Bridge.

What brought Matisse to Mitchell Place? I wonder if he’s in New York visiting his son.

Pierre Matisse moved to New York in the 1920s to become an art dealer and opened a renowned art gallery in the Fuller Building on East 57th Street.

Apparently Matisse came to Mitchell Place often, according to a 2014 New York Times article on one-block streets.

“The painter Henri Matisse was a frequent visitor to the charming roof deck at 10 Mitchell Place, a.k.a. Stewart Hall. There, a framed 1930 photograph in the 1928 co-op’s equally charming lobby, which has a large fireplace, shows him resting on a canvas deck chair, pondering the East River views.”

A memorial to the Gilded Age’s favorite architect

May 28, 2018

The curved monument to American-born architect Richard Morris Hunt sits weathered and leaf-covered at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street.

Though not a household name these days, Hunt (below right, in a portrait by John Singer Sargent) was the man who sculpted the look of the Gilded Age.

A brilliant visionary with a reputation for humility and humor, Hunt was the starchitect for high society yet also the genius behind public institutions and what’s regarded as the city’s first apartment house.

The memorial site is a fitting location; within the surrounding blocks once stood some of the spectacular buildings he designed.

Across Fifth Avenue was the Lenox Library, a private precursor to the public library system developed after the turn of the century.

(When the Lenox Library building was torn down, Henry Clay Frick built his exquisite mansion-turned-museum in its place.)

At Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, Hunt designed the mansion for Mrs. Caroline Astor and her son.

Astor left her previous, less showy mansion at 33rd Street in the 1890s, after her nephew decided to demolish his neighboring mansion and build the Hotel Waldorf.

Hunt was commissioned to build a double mansion, where Mrs. Astor and her son’s family could live in the French Renaissance splendor fashionable among the city’s wealthiest at the time.

(The Astor mansion was demolished in the 1920s, replaced by Temple Emanu-El.)

Hunt also designed “Petit Chateau” for W.K. Vanderbilt and his social-climbing wife, Alva, in 1883 at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.

(Petit Chateau, the site of the 1883 costume ball that secured Alva Vanderbilt’s place in society, was also demolished in the 1920s.)

The facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was another Hunt creation.

After his death in 1895, plans for a memorial to the man who designed the Gilded Age were drawn. Daniel Chester French (he did the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.) created Hunt’s monument.

The understated site features a “central bust of the architect,” states centralparknyc.org. “A semicircular portico and curved bench support decorative columns and a cornice.”

“At each end stands a female figure, allegorical statues of Architecture, and Painting, and Sculpture,” explains the site.

It’s a perfectly Gilded Age-esque monument to the man who had much influence over the way the era looked—quite elaborate and fanciful compared to our pared-down, minimalist tastes today.

[Last photo: Wikipedia]

Dandy Point: the 1820s city’s popular swim spot

June 26, 2017

How did New Yorkers of the early 19th century handle summer?

If they didn’t cool off at one of the city’s lovely pleasure gardens, they may have gone to Dandy Point—a popular East River recreation spot at today’s East 13th Street, depicted here by William Chappel.

A Harper’s New Monthly Magazine article from the 1882 looked back at Dandy Point, which was just north of several shipyards.

“Above of the northernmost yard the bank of the river sloped into a beautiful beach of clean fine sand, where at evening scores of men and women assembled to bathe in Arcadian simplicity,” stated Harper’s.

“Dandy Point, or ‘Pint,’ as they called it, was the name of this popular resort, and no summer night passed without witnessing the arrival of bathing parties of twenty of more persons of both sexes.”

“Down from the big wagons they jumped, the men going to one spot, the women going to another not far off; and when their clothes had been exchanged for older or less valuable ones, without the protection of bath-houses of any kind, down into the water they ran, disporting themselves as freely as dolphins.”

[Second image: East River at 53rd Street in the 1830s, to give an idea of what Dandy Point might have looked like; Wikipedia]

Spring flowers arrive on a rainy Village sidewalk

March 27, 2017

Few artists painted the moods, rhythms, and rituals of the seasons like John Sloan, who moved to New York from Philadelphia in 1904 and spent the early 20th century in Greenwich Village—living and working for almost a decade at 88 Washington Place.

His windows facing Lower Sixth Avenue “gave Sloan a view of street life from an elevated vantage point, which he frequently incorporated into his paintings,” states the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston.

A real-life wagon loaded with vibrant flowers was the inspiration for his 1924 painting “Flowers of Spring,” which belongs to the MFA.

As Sloan (at left in a self-portrait from 1890) himself recalled in his book Gist of Art:

“This picture has, in a very direct, simple way, handed on the thrill that comes to everyone on a wet spring morning from the first sight of the flower huckster’s wagon. The brilliant notes of the plants surrounded on all sides by wet, city grays.”

Sloan’s beloved wife, Dolly, is the woman on the left with the umbrella.

[Hat Tip: Kathy van Vorhees]

New York is a city of rooftop wooden water tanks

February 20, 2017

They seem like relics of another New York. But most buildings in the city higher than five or six stories have one of these wooden water tanks perched on stilt-like contraptions on the roof.

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Photographer Andreas Feininger captured their beauty under a dusting of snow in this image, from 1952. I don’t know where this was taken, but there’s a good chance the water towers look exactly the same today.

A rich bachelor’s ball ignites a Gilded Age scandal

February 20, 2017

jameshazenhydeportraitNew York has always been home to young men like James Hazen Hyde.

Handsome, cultured, and—as the heir to the Equitable Life Assurance Society—incredibly rich, Hyde was one of the brash young men Gilded Age newspapers couldn’t wait to gush about, and then tear apart, at the turn of the 20th century.

A Harvard graduate who loved art and French culture, he lived in his own brownstone at Nine East 40th Street and had his clothes hand-made in Paris.

Hyde raced “four-in-hand” coaches (four-horse carriages) with his friend Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, and he dated President Theodore Roosevelt’s equally social daughter Alice.

hazenballgreenjacketHyde wasn’t publicity shy; he even commissioned a French painter to do his portrait (above), which gave him a royal air and showing off his dark Lothario-like looks.

He also enjoyed a good party. In 1905, Hyde threw what could be described as the most spectacular ball of the century: “a French 18th century–themed costume party for which he would be known all of his life,” wrote Patricia Beard in After the Ball.

The ball was held at posh Fifth Avenue society haunt Sherry’s on January 31. At 10:30 p.m., 600 guests were received in a two-story ballroom transformed to look like the gardens of Versailles. Invitees “wore costumes embroidered with emeralds and pearls, and jewels that had belonged to empresses,” stated Beard.

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Society writers heralded the event the next day in all the papers. “James H. Hyde Gives Splendid Costume Fete,” wrote the New York Times, printing the names of notable guests (like Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish and various Belmonts) along with a description of what costume they wore.

hydeballmcny93-1-19504But all the press attention from the ball led to his downfall. Though Hyde had a majority share in the Equitable company, he was to become president when he turned 30, which would happen in 1906.

Prominent board members who already wanted Hyde out of the company decided to use the publicity surrounding the ball to charge that he was “too frivolous to run a company,” explained New York History blog.

Rumors spread that he spent Equitable money to fund the ball, among other examples of sleazy business practices. Policy holders got angry, and New York State investigated.

hydeportraitsittingdownIn December 1905, with his reputation ruined (though he was never charged with criminal wrongdoing), Hyde took off for France.

He sold his Long Island estate, carriages, private rail car, and his majority share in the company his father founded and bequeathed to him.

He lived in France until 1941, when he returned to New York, “still attracting attention when he walked along Fifth Avenue in his cape and spats,” wrote Beard.

He died in 1959, dapper and wealthy but in obscurity, donating much of his art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverHyde’s extravagant, excessive ball and the subsequent scandal make a fitting coda for the end of the Gilded Age . . . which is explored in depth and illustrated lavishly in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Third photo: MCNY; 93.1.1.20208; fourth photo: MCNY; 93.1.19504]

A Bowery tinsmith paints his city of memory

February 13, 2017

Born in 1801, William Chappel was a Manhattan native who made a modest living as a tinsmith and resided with his wife and kids at 165 Bowery opposite the Bowery Theatre.

[“The Buttermilk Peddler,” location unknown]

chappelbuttermilkpeddler2

He was also an amateur painter (and the father of a more renowned artist, Alonzo Chappel). The elder Chappel’s depictions of day-to-day street life offer a fascinating peek at New Yorkers at work and at play in the city of approximately 1810.

At that time, Gotham’s population stood at less than 100,000, most residents lived in 2- or 3-story wooden houses, the urban core barely stretched past Canal Street, and conveniences such as clean water and mass transit were still pipe dreams.

[“The Baker’s Wagon,” Hester Street]

chappelbakerswagon

Even without the amenities New Yorkers are long used to, life in the 1810 city isn’t so far off from the metropolis of today.

Peddlers sell food—buttermilk, strawberries, baked pears, bread. A watchman, one of the leather-helmeted patrolmen who predate the city’s first police force, walks his beat. Boats ferry people to Brooklyn from a dock at the end of Catherine Street.

[“City Watchman,” Elizabeth Street]

chappelnightwatchman

Well-dressed women head to a tea party. Bathers wade into the cool water at Dandy Point, at today’s 13th Street. Shoppers buy meat and fish at a marketplace called the Fly (from the Dutch “Vly”) Market. Volunteer firemen attract admirers as they wash their engines on the Bowery.

[“Firemen’s Washing Day,” The Bowery]

chapellfiremenswashingday

Chappel’s work in currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which notes that the 27 small oil paintings on display were all done in the 1870s, decades after the time period they depict.

[“Tea Party,” Forsyth and Canal Streets]

chappelteaparty

“Chappel’s images defy easy categorization because his practice and motivation remain elusive,” states a summary of the exhibit mounted beside the paintings.”

“Did Chappel produce these works, in all their minute detail, from older sketches or from youthful memories?”

[Bathing Party, 13th Street at East River]

chappelbathingparty

“One thing is certain: Chappel’s scenes offer a rare glimpse of early nineteenth-century New York and its diverse working-class communities as it began its tumultuous ascent to the United States’ financial capital.”

Silence and stillness of the 1930s East River

January 27, 2017

Jara Henry Valenta was a Czech-born American artist who made his way to New York City in 1934. Here he painted this scene of a lonely East River power generating station, with New York Hospital and the Queensboro Bridge in the background.

eastriverjaravalenta

His waterfront—we’re on the Manhattan Brooklyn side—feels stark and remote. Off to the right are two small figures holding shovels beside a pile of coal, a coal company truck parked beside one.

This is a waterfront without the usual hustle and bustle, perhaps a comment on the Depression-era city’s change in fortune from a vibrant metropolis of trade and shipping to one of economic stillness.

[Note: this post was updated to reflect the background information and history provided by the commenters below. Thanks everyone for their insight. Now, if only I could find out more about the painter.]

[From the Smithsonian American Art Museum/Renwick Gallery]