Archive for the ‘art’ Category

An eccentric loner paints New York at dusk and in moonlight

June 20, 2021

Louis Michel Eilshemius had the right background to become an establishment painter.

Born to a wealthy family in New Jersey in 1864, he was educated in Europe and then Cornell University. After persuading his father to let him enroll in the Art Students League and pursue painting, he returned to live at his family’s Manhattan brownstone at 118 East 57th Street.

His early work earned notoriety and was selected for exhibition at the National Academy of Design in the 1880s.

“Eilshemius’s early artistic style was rooted in lessons he gleaned from his studies abroad, specifically the landscape aesthetics of the Barbizon School and French impressionism,” states the National Gallery of Art.

New York Rooftops,” undated

In the 1890s and 1900s he traveled the world, published books of poetry and a novel, and continued to paint. But what one critic called his “outsized” ego led Eilshemius, by all accounts a loner and eccentric, to reject the contemporary art scene.

“By 1911, disconcerted by the lack of attention his paintings attracted, he had renounced his formal training and transitioned to an entirely self-conscious and seemingly self-taught style.”

That self-taught style was dreamy, romantic, and visionary. Influenced by reclusive 19th century painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, it was described as having a “sinister magic.”

“Autumn Evening, Park Avenue,” 1915

“The paintings of this time became increasingly less conventional and punctuated by an element of fantasy, depicting voluptuous nudes and moonlit landscapes,” states the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. “With whimsical flourish, Eilshemius also painted sinuous frames onto these pictures, thereby adding both dimensionality and flatness to his lyrical and romantic scenes.” 

Though he isn’t known as a New York City streetscapes painter, Eilshemius seems to have occasionally painted the city around him—creating muted, mystical scenes of Gotham’s shabbier neighborhoods in twilight and moonlight.

As Eilshamius turned away from the art world, he became more of an oddball, a “bearded, querulous, erratic man whose gaunt figure was a stock one in the galleries that never hung his work,” according to his obituary in the New York Times.

East Side New York,” undated

Now he was living in the dusty family brownstone with just his brother, Henry. When he wasn’t haranguing gallery owners to buy his work, he was handing out pamphlets touting himself as an artistic genius, or writing thousands of letters to city newspapers. (The Sun printed some of them under amusing headlines, states his obituary.)

As the 20th century went on, however, Eilshemius was rediscovered by the art world. In the 1920s and 1930s he had numerous exhibits, and his talent was recognized by the critics of the era.

“At this time, his success both confounded and fueled his perceived peculiarities and erratic behavior and, injured in an automobile accident in 1932, Eilshemius became increasingly reclusive,” according to the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

“New York Street at Dusk,” undated

When Henry died in 1940, Eilshemius was left ailing and impoverished in the family’s “gloomy, gaslit” brownstone. In 1941 he came down with pneumonia, but he protested going to the hospital, so doctors put him in Bellevue’s psych ward.

He died in December of that year, in debt but with the recognition he always wanted.

“A feisty rebel and a tireless iconoclast, he never painted to satisfy the fashions of his day, but only to please his own strange and sometimes nightmarish vision,” wrote David L. Shirey in the New York Times in 1978, in a piece on an exhibit of Eilshemius’ work. “It was a vision characterized by extraordinary personal insight and imagination.”

The steam pipe repair crew fixing New York at night

June 14, 2021

Born in New York City in 1901, painter Dines Carlsen made a name for himself as a still life and landscape painter. Here he made nighttime New York City his landscape, focusing on the men called out to do the rough work of fixing steam pipes while most of the city sleeps.

“Steam Pipe Repair Crew” is undated, and I’m not sure where it’s set. Though the scene takes place likely in the first half of the 20th century (based on the clothes and truck), it depicts a situation that occurs multiple times every night, night after night, somewhere in New York—people doing their jobs out of sight under darkness, when most of us are unaware.

[Cavalier Galleries]

The stars, bars, bubbles, and petals of Manhattan manhole covers

June 7, 2021

Underfoot all over New York City are late 19th and early 20th century manhole covers embossed with unusual shapes and designs. There’s a practical purpose for this: raised detailing helped prevent people from slipping (and horses from skidding) as they traversed Gotham’s streets in wet weather.

They’re also a form of branding. The city’s many foundries of the era manufactured manhole and coal hole covers. Each foundry company seemed to have chosen a specific design or look to represent them.

And let’s not leave out the artistry that went into these. Manhole covers aren’t typically thought of as works of art, but there’s creativity and imagination in the different designs we walk over and tend not to notice.

J.B. and J.M. Cornell, who operated an ironworks foundry at 26th Street and 11th Avenue, added bubble-like details and smaller dots to their covers, as seen on the example (at top) found in the East 70s near Central Park. They also added swirly motifs on the sides, prettying up these iron lids and making the name and address easier to read.

McDougall and Potter, on the other hand, went for a classic star to decorate this cover on East 80th Street (second photo above). This foundry on West 55th Street also chose bars and dots, within which they included the company name and address.

This cover (above) on 23rd Street near Fifth Avenue, likely by Jacob Mark & Sons on Worth Street, once has colored glass embedded in that hexagram design. A century and then some of foot and vehicle traffic wore them down and pushed some out.

Could those be flower petals decorating the hexagram shape on this cover, also by the Mark foundry? Located near Broadway and Houston Street, it’s unique and charming, especially with the tiny stars dotting the lower end.

A metalwork dreamscape at a 1929 Gracie Square co-op

June 7, 2021

Ever since the far eastern end of 84th Street was rebranded Gracie Square in 1929 (after Archibald Gracie, whose summer home is now the mayor’s residence four blocks north), this one-block stretch alongside Carl Schurz Park has (mostly) been lined with tall, elegant apartment houses.

These buildings, off East End Avenue overlooking the East River, radiate a stuffy kind of luxury. But something very imaginative makes 7 Gracie Square stands out from its more staid neighbors.

It’s the magnificent metalwork on the front doors and window grilles—featuring a bestiary dreamscape of elephants, gazelles, plants, leaves, and curlicue, wave-like motifs that looks like snails or shells.

Of course the doors are the creation of an artist: a painter and muralist named Arthur W. Crisp. After relocating to New York City from his native Canada in the early 1900s, Crisp studied at the Art Students League and shared a studio on 34th Street.

Unlike most people working in creative fields, Crisp had some money by the late 1920s. He bought property on the future Gracie Square and commissioned a builder and architect to construct an apartment house, wrote Christopher Gray in a 2011 Streetscapes column in the New York Times.

“Crisp retained George B. Post & Sons, along with Rosario Candela, and they designed a tepid Art Deco facade of red brick, with vertical runs of brick set at an angle,” stated Gray.

Why Crisp decided to decorate the doorway entrance in various types of metal—and what inspired his vision to make this “tepid” building so unique—remains a mystery.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that Crisp lived in one of the building’s maisonettes, according to Gray. He left behind his last name, which he playfully embedded in one of the iron window grilles to the left of the front doors (below).

Crisp didn’t stay long at 7 Gracie Square. In 1935, the building went bankrupt, Gray wrote, and at some point Crisp relocated to Charlton Street.

The building went co-op in 1945—and the dreamy, fanciful doors still greet residents, catching the eye of the occasional passerby when the sun hits the metal and creates a powerful gleam.

[MCNY X2010.7.2.8894]

Brooklyn’s 14th Regiment armory, day and night

May 31, 2021

Designed to look like a Medieval fortress with towers and turrets, the 14th Regiment Armory—also called the Eighth Avenue armory—has been part of Park Slope since 1893.

In daytime or at night, this block-spanning armory with brick and bluestone trim is a Victorian wonder, as these postcards (the first one with glitter!) from the collection at the Museum of the City of New York reveal.

It owes its existence to the wave of armory-building undertaken by New York between the Civil War and World War I. Not many survive, but putting the spotlight on one on Memorial Day will hopefully encourage New York to take a closer look at these magnificent beauties.

[First postcard: F2011.33.1067; Second postcard: MCNY, X2011.34.2288]

All the arches that were built (and then bulldozed) in Madison Square

May 31, 2021

Arch fever at Madison Square Park started in 1889. That’s the year a pair of elaborate wood arches festooned with American flags were built to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration.

One arch went up outside the 23rd Street and Broadway entrance to the park (above photo), and the other was constructed on the 26th Street side (below). The city threw an impressive party for the first president, but after the festivities honoring Washington ended, the two arches were reduced to rubble.

But arches in general were quite popular all over the Beaux-Arts city through the end of the Gilded Age. So 10 years later, another arch was unveiled beside the Fifth Avenue Hotel at 24th Street and Broadway.

This impressive structure was the Dewey Arch (above), named for Admiral George Dewey, whose victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War earned him national hero status. Dewey was coming to New York to be honored with a parade and a flotilla of ships, and city officials hoped to welcome him in triumphant style.

The ostentatious arch reflected that spirit. “The Dewey Arch, designed by architect Charles R. Lamb, was based on the Arch of Titus in Rome and was produced by 28 sculptors,” wrote flatirondistrict.nyc. “It was topped by a quadriga, a chariot pulled by four horses running abreast. This one, in keeping with the occasion, depicted four seahorses pulling a ship.”

After the Dewey celebration, calls went out to turn this temporary arch (made from staff, a mixture of plaster and wood shavings) into a permanent one. Unfortunately, the Dewey Arch was “carted away” later that year, already picked apart by vandals, according to Daniel B. Schneider in The New York Times FYI column in 1999. The public lost interest in Dewey by then anyway.

But Madison Square Park wasn’t done with arches yet. In 1918, a fourth arch, called the Victory Arch, would be unveiled at Fifth Avenue and 24th Street. The Victory Arch was the brainchild of Mayor John Hylan, a way to honor the fallen soldiers from World War I as well as the men who were returning from Europe.

“The $80,000 triple arch was designed by Thomas Hastings in temporary materials and modeled after the Arch of Constantine in Rome, with relief panels commemorating important battles, war service organizations, and industrial might—like munitions makers,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1994.

As with the Dewey Arch, many New Yorkers wanted the Victory Arch to be permanent. Of course, it had plenty of critics as well. “Fiorello H. LaGuardia, as a candidate for President of the Board of Alderman in 1919, denounced the project as the ‘Altar of Extravagance,’ stated Gray.

By 1919, thousands of doughboys had marched through the Victory Arch during the many parades held by the city. It must have been quite a shock, then, to watch the arch be demolished in the summer of 1920—a victim of “bureaucratic infighting,” according to Allison McNearney in The Daily Beast.

Madison Square Park remains archless a century later—but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

[First image: MCNY, X2010.11.11029; second image: MCNY, X2010.11.11015; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY X2010.28.827]

Two portraits of one lowdown saloon in 1919 Greenwich Village

May 24, 2021

The Village has always had dive bars that attract locals and luminaries. But The Golden Swan, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street, might have been the first—and the most notorious in its day.

Inside this Irish tavern dating back to at least the 1870s, writers, artists, activists, and assorted Village characters of the 1910s gathered to drink. (National prohibition was looming, after all.) While the front of the tavern may have catered to locals and Hudson Dusters gangsters, bohemians made the back room—aka, the Hell Hole—their own.

Charles Demuth was a fan of the Swan. Demuth, who gained fame as a precisionist painter, captured the mood and mannerisms of the Swan’s nightly denizens in a visceral portrait from 1919 entitled “At the Golden Swan, Sometimes Called the Hell Hole.”

Here he “depicts himself and Marcel Duchamp, the acclaimed French Dadaist, seated at the left table of the popular meeting spot for young artists and bohemians,” wrote Christie’s in 2007.

“Other patrons included the artist John Sloan, who produced an etching of the bar in 1917 (above), and the playwright Eugene O’Neill, who incorporated it into some of his plays, including The Iceman Cometh,” stated Christie’s. Social activist Dorothy Day, journalist John Reed, and anarchist Hippolyte Havel were part of the crowd.

Sloan, whose studio was across the street on the other side of the Sixth Avenue El, depicted O’Neill (on the upper right) in his sketch. Both works give viewers a good idea of what the Golden Swan and Hellhole looked like. But Demuth’s feels rawer; you can feel the isolation among all the people packed into the small back room of a bar together, none of them looking at the person they’re sharing their table with.

Christie’s included an excerpt about the Golden Swan from the biography O’Neill, by Arthur and Barbara Gelb: “The Hell Hole was a representative Irish saloon. It had a sawdust covered floor, rude wooden tables, and was filled with the smell of sour beer and mingled sounds of alcoholic woe and laughter. Its barroom was entered from the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street the ‘front room,’ in which women were not allowed.

“Above the doorway swung a wooden sign decorated with a tarnished gilt swan. Farther east, on Fourth Street, was the ‘family entrance,’ a glass door that gave access to a small, dank, gaslit chamber known as the ‘backroom.’ Wooden tables clustered about a smoking potbellied stove, and it was here that respectable Irish widows came to cry into their five-cent mugs of beer…”

The Golden Swan was demolished in 1928 to make way for the subway. But at the corner today is a patch of greenery known as The Golden Swan Garden.

[Top image: Christie’s, second image: Metmuseum.org; third image: New York Post/Getty]

The “romantic reality” of midcentury Village street scenes

May 2, 2021

Can you feel it? Right now, New York has a vitality that went into a dark sleep in early 2020. People are out on the sidewalks performing the rituals of urban living; the city is emerging dynamic and alive.

What New Yorkers are feeling this spring is hard to describe—but Alfred Mira captures it perfectly in his paintings. Born in Italy in 1900, Mira made his home in Greenwich Village and supported himself as an artist.

His seemingly ordinary street scenes—like this two above of Seventh Avenue South and then a rainy Greenwich Avenue in the 1940s, or below of Washington Square Park in 1930—pulse with New York’s unique excitement and passion.

Mira’s paintings “have a rare skill in suggesting, rather than slavishly and verbosely saying,” wrote one critic reviewing an exhibit of Mira’s work in 1943 Los Angeles. “That accounts for the vibrant movement of his street scenes. The people, the buildings, the buses and passenger cars and other items in his paintings appear more real than the things themselves. They have what in fiction has been called ‘romantic reality.'”

What an artist captured on 1950s Orchard Street

April 19, 2021

When Joseph Sherly Sheppard painted these three scenes of Orchard Street in the 1950s, this eight-block stretch of the Lower East Side was devoted to cut-rate commerce.

Unglamorous tenement storefronts jockey for space, merchandise spills onto the sidewalk, and sign after colorful sign advertised such utilitarian items like coats, linens, eyeglasses, and hosiery.

Orchard in the 1950s seems emptier than it had been in the early decades of the 20th century, when it was a packed Jewish immigrant enclave.

Commerce continues to reign on Orchard today, and some blocks still have the feel of a mid-20th century flashback.

But like so much of today’s Lower East Side, this old city street (named for the orchards that once graced the 18th century DeLancey estate) is glammed up with new condos, restaurants, and trendier, higher-end stores. Older ladies carrying bulging shopping bags are a rarer sight these days.

Born in Maryland in 1930, Sheppard has had a long career as a realist painter. He painted unique scenes of humanity, from sunbathers to circus performers to grape pickers. Most of his work depicts places other than New York City. But something drew him to Orchard Street.

Sheppard once again painted Orchard Street in 1982: it’s a scene outside a clothing store that displays its wares like an open-air market.

The 1982 painting is similar to those from the 1950s (the “I Love NY” shirt confirms its era): clothes hang over the sidewalk, pedestrians and delivery people go about their business, and the occasional curious customer contemplates a deal.

[First and second images: Artnet.com; third image: Invaluable.com; fourth image: Artnet.com]

The man behind a faded store sign at 52nd Street

April 12, 2021

In 1960, East Side resident Louis Mattia opened his antique light fixtures business in a small tenement space at 980 Second Avenue. Back then, Manhattan’s design district—in the East 50s along First and Second Avenues—was at its peak.

Showrooms and decorative arts concerns still operate here. But the neighborhood doesn’t resemble the one Mattia likely knew, when the Stuyvesant-educated machinist who worked nights restoring and rewiring lamps decided to open his own store and make his love of lamps his livelihood, according to 1972 Daily News article.

“Whenever Louis Mattia sees an old sconce or candlestick, a discarded table leg, a broken chandelier, or a 50-year-old bubble gum machine, he immediately envisions the lovely light it will shed as a lamp and proceeds to make it,” wrote the News.

“Louis, who is not only a clever artisan but an imaginative artist, looks upon a lamp with the same affection with which a father looks at his child.”

For 35 years, Mattia (above, in a photo from the News story) ran his store, giving it up in 1995. He passed away in 2004 at age 87, according to a death notice in the New York Times.

Mattia may be gone and East Midtown transformed. But for several years now, the beautiful, hand-painted sign for the former lamp store remains on the facade.

“Louis Mattia” the sign reads in large faded gold letters, along with the PL (for Plaza) phone number. It’s a gentle reminder of the man who the Daily News called “buoyant with enormous joy in his art and craft,” the kind of artist and craftsman Manhattan doesn’t seem to have much room for anymore.

[Second image: New York Daily News]