Archive for the ‘art’ Category

A couple, a brownstone stoop, and an “unspoken question” in a 1956 Hopper painting

March 13, 2023

When I think of Edward Hopper, his etchings, prints, and paintings from the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s come to mind—mostly images of the modern metropolis and the isolation fostered by the urban network of bridges, elevated trains, and concrete office buildings.

But Hopper continued to paint through the postwar decades, up until his death at age 84 in 1967 inside his longtime studio on Washington Square North.

“Sunlight on Brownstones” is one of these later works. Completed in 1956, it shows a young couple at the entrance of a brownstone, likely their own. The sterile brownstone row looks very detached from a dark green Central Park, presumably, across the street. The couple also seems disconnected and disengaged, like they were dropped accidentally into a landscape painting.

What are they looking at? The painting is part of the collection at the Wichita Art Museum, and I’ll let the caption on the website offer an explanation.

“The couple on the stoop appear to gaze upon something beyond the painting’s right edge, beg­ging the question of their interest,” the museum website states. “The answer appears to lie outside the paintings frame, both lit­eral and temporal. Like a movie still, Sunlight on Brownstones seems to have been removed from a larger narrative.”

The caption ends by suggesting that this couple, in their stillness and solitude, “seem to look expectantly toward the sun, as if searching for an answer to an unspoken question.”

The bright colors and small figures of a Depression-era Midtown block

March 6, 2023

Eighth Avenue and 56th Street today looks nothing like it did when painter Lucille Blanch captured this otherwise ordinary block south of Columbus Circle 93 years ago.

Today, modern office buildings and apartment towers obscure the view of the Argonaut Building—the castle-like white structure that still stands down the block on Broadway and 57th Street. The enormous billboards are long gone, too.

The church below it, the flamboyant Broadway Tabernacle, met the wrecking ball in the 1970s. The tenement with the empty storefront next to the tire shop has also disappeared, replaced by a McDonald’s.

This stretch of West Midtown in the 1920s was known as the automobile showroom district, which explains the tire store and what look like car dealerships on the left-hand corner and in the middle of the block.

Lucile Blanch made a living as a painter, departing her Minnesota hometown to study at the Art Students League on West 57th Street on scholarship. She then became involved with the Fourteenth Street School, a group of artists with a social realist bent.

In 1930, she would have been 35 years old. Why she chose this corner to paint remains a mystery. But her depiction of the bright, colorful cityscape dwarfing the small, low-key residents might be saying something about the power of the urban environment over its residents caught in the toll of the Depression.

(Hat tip to Village Preservation’s Off the Grid blog, which included this painting recently in a post about unheralded female artists living and/or working South of Union Square.)

[Second image: Peter A. Juley/Wikipedia]

The wise owls adorning the facade of a 1906 West Side high school

February 13, 2023

The delightful building housing John Jay College of Criminal Justice, on Tenth Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets, is a confection of gables, parapets, pitched roofs, and terra cotta ornamentation.

But it’s the owls adorning a quiet side entrance facing West 58th Street, above, that give away what this Flemish Renaissance building was originally used for.

Built in 1906, this was DeWitt Clinton High School—an all-boys institution considered to be the largest high school in the nation at the time. (DeWitt Clinton would relocate to the Bronx to an even bigger campus two decades later.)

The H-shaped design (below, in a 2008 photo) is one of the hallmarks of New York City public school buildings constructed in this era, and so are the owls.

These symbols of wisdom can be found on many city school buildings dating back to the turn of the 20th century—when education became a Progressive-era ideal and Gotham embarked on a massive school-building juggernaut.

What makes these owls unique are the fledglings beneath them. Perhaps they symbolize the youngsters walking through these school doors and the knowledge imparted to them in an era when high school was not mandatory, and any boy attending secondary school was probably there to learn.

[Third image: Wikipedia]

A “wonderfully gaudy” Fifth Avenue chateau for a Gilded Age financier’s large family

January 30, 2023

Many of the Gilded Age mansions built on or around Fifth Avenue carried unhappy backstories. Residents of these marble and limestone palaces navigated disappointing marriages and disappearing fortunes. Intended to be monuments to wealth and grandeur, their homes were often reduced to rubble within a few generations.

But the still-extant mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street is the rare home on Millionaire Mile built for a close-knit clan that valued art and philanthropy. Within these ecclesiastical-like walls lived two parents who modeled for their children what it meant to give back.

The story of the mansion, at 1109 Fifth Avenue, begins with Felix Moritz Warburg. Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1871 into a family of bankers, Warburg immigrated to America in 1894 and became a partner in the banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb & Co.

“He established a reputation as a financier, bon vivant, art collector, philanthropist, and leader within the Jewish community,” noted the Expanded Carnegie Hill Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

Warburg was also becoming a family man. A year later he married Frieda Schiff (below, in 1894), daughter of Jacob Schiff, the philanthropist and financier who was a senior partner in the firm.

In the next eight years, the Warburgs would have five children—one girl and four boys. Though they lived in a posh townhouse on East 72nd Street, they needed a larger space to fit their growing family (as well as Felix Warburg’s growing art collection).

So amid the Panic of 1907, Warburg bought a corner lot at Fifth and 92nd Street a block from Andrew Carnegie’s mansion on 91st Street. Warburg admired the style of the 1899 Fletcher-Sinclair mansion at Fifth Avenue and 79th Street (today’s Ukrainian Institute), and he commissioned that mansion’s architect, C. P. H. Gilbert, to create a similar residence for his family.

Gilbert was already at work designing a home for Felix Warburg’s brother, Paul. It probably wasn’t difficult for Felix to ask the highly acclaimed architect to create one for him as well.

Jacob Schiff, however, tried to dissuade Felix and Frieda from going with such a showy, fanciful style, thinking it might foment envy and encourage anti-semitism, according to Ron Chernow’s The Warburgs. But Schiff’s objection didn’t change the Warburgs’ plans.

In 1908, the Warburg mansion was completed (above, early 1900s): a massive French Gothic home with its main entrance on 92nd Street and a lawn along the side. It was not dissimilar to the many ostentatious chateaus wealthy New Yorkers were building at the time.

“Made of Indiana limestone, with steep slate mansard roofs and ogee-arched windows with crocketed gables, this wonderfully gaudy edifice fit into the row of extravagant mansions that lined Fifth Avenue in the aftermath of the Gilded Age,” wrote Chernow.

Inside, the house (above, around 1940) reflected the family’s interests. A second floor room and conservatory were filled with Felix Warburg’s art collection, which included works by Botticelli and etchings by Rembrandt, Durer, and Cranach, noted Chernow. The third floor contained an office for Felix and a space for Frieda to host friends for tea.

The children’s rooms were on the fourth floor, where “a miniature electric railroad snaked from room to room,” noted the 1981 report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission declaring the mansion to be a historic landmark. The fifth floor contained squash courts, and the sixth floor was given over to the 13 live-in servants.

While their “bright, smart-alecky, irreverent children,” as Chernow described them, grew up and began adult lives, the Warburgs became deeper involved in philanthropic efforts. The scope of these efforts is almost impossible to describe.

Felix Warburg (above) became “involved with hospitals, aid to children, to the blind, and to the immigrant poor, ” stated the 1981 LPC report. “He organized 75 separate charities into the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, and served as its president and later chairman of the board.”

Warburg also established the first children’s courts in New York City, brought nurses into public schools, funded playgrounds and settlement houses, and lent his financial support to museums while helping to establish Juilliard School of Music.

His philanthropy extended overseas as well. “During World War I when Central Europe endured desperate privations, Warburg became a founder and chairman of the Joint Distribution Committee, of which he remained head until 1932,” per the 1981 report.

After the Nazis seized power, Warburg helped thousands of Jewish residents flee, according to a Time article from 1937. Ultimately, he gave millions to assist Jewish causes around the world.

The Warburgs’ biggest and most personal act of charity was also the one that kept their mansion from meeting the wrecking ball.

Both Felix and Frieda served on the board of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Seven years after Felix died in his Fifth Avenue home in 1937—he had a heart attack at age 66—Frieda decided to donate the home to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“Thirty-nine years after its erection as a private home for a German-born banker, the Warburg Mansion opened to the public as the Jewish Museum in 1947,” states the website for the Jewish Museum.

Considering the Warburgs’ deep involvement in educational and cultural philanthropy, not to mention Jewish causes, we can assume that they both would enthusiastically approve of the ongoing use of their magnificent former family home.

[Third image:; fourth photo: NYPL; fifth photo: NYC Department of Records & Information Services; fifth photo:]

What it was like commuting by sleigh in snowy 1860s Manhattan

January 23, 2023

The idea of getting around the city by horse-drawn sleigh might sound like a lot of fun to contemporary, snow-starved New Yorkers.

But as this detailed illustration from 1865 shows, sitting in an open-air omnibus as three teams of horses round a tight side street covered in snow was probably rather miserable.

What a rich scene the illustration offers, though. While two drivers direct three teams of horses to pull the streetcar to its destination, groups of boys are having a jolly time on sleds. A dog joins in the excitement, chasing the horses.

Ads for a tailor and a seller of shirts appear on the storefronts in the background. And when was the last time you came across a shop selling only wine and tea?

This omnibus appears to carry commuters to and from the Fulton Ferry, which allowed people to cross the East River in an era before bridges. I’m not quite sure how the omnibus got from the ferry on the East River to Broadway, Greenwich Avenue, Amity Street (the former name for Third Street), and Seventh Avenue.

More sleighing and sled scenes from old New York can be accessed here.

The story behind the flowers in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

January 23, 2023

When you walk through the front doors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you enter a Neoclassical lobby that’s an architectural treasure in its own right—with dramatic archways, a marble floor, and a ceiling that seems to soar to the heavens.

But amid the coolness of the stone and marble, there’s a feature of the museum’s “Great Hall” that adds an aura of warmth and life: the giant urns that contain beautiful oversize fresh flower arrangements.

These lovely blooms change weekly; they tend to reflect the seasons. And just like every work of art displayed at the Met, there’s a story behind them.

The flowers were the idea of philanthropist Lila Acheson Wallace. In the late 1960s, she funded an endowment that would allow Met administrators to purchase and display weekly “starburst” flower arrangements throughout the lobby.

“An ephemeral addition to an otherwise timeless space, the florals change every Tuesday thanks to the generosity of a single donor, Lila Acheson Wallace, whose endowment in 1967 funded fresh flowers in perpetuity,” reported the New York Times in 2016.

Wallace herself reportedly wanted the flowers to convey to visitors, “we’re expecting you—welcome.”

Wallace, who with her husband founded Readers’ Digest in 1922, was a major benefactor of the Met. Museum-goers may recognize her name above the entrance to the Lila Acheson Wallace wing, which opened in 1987 to exhibit modern art.

Though she passed away in 1984, her endowment continues to grace the Great Hall and bring a sense of the present to a building famed for its antiquities.

[Top image: TomasEE/Wikipedia; third image: MetKids/]

The hard work of shoveling snow during a New York winter

January 16, 2023

You can almost feel the bitter cold in this rich, evocative scene of faceless men battling piles of snow after a winter storm buried a street somewhere in New York City.

Completed in 1905, painter Harry W. Newman would have been 32 years old when he captured the gray skies, white snow, black coats, and red brick that composed a typical city block of the era. We can’t see her face, but the little girl on the far right might be the only person looking at this as a snowy wonderland.

Where was this block, exactly? I wish I knew, but perhaps not knowing is the point. I see what look like streetcar rails sticking out from the snow, and the telephone wires and poles make me think it’s not Manhattan—where wires were buried underground following the Blizzard of 1888.

Could this be the aftermath of that deadly surprise blizzard, painted from memory?

[Source: Cavalier Galleries]

This freewheeling French cafe and artist hangout had a colonial-era past

January 9, 2023

Sometimes you come across an image that compels you to do some research. That’s what happened when I found myself viewing this fleeting moment of intimacy below.

“At Mouquin’s” is a portrait by William Glackens, a founder of the Ashcan School known for his tender urban realist landscapes of New York City at the turn of the century.

In this painting, Glackens shows us two patrons at a cafe called Mouquin’s—a bustling, covivial spot on Sixth Avenue and 28th Street in early 20th century Manhattan’s red-light Tenderloin district. It should be a lighthearted, jubilant scene befitting this decadent era before financial panic, the Great War, and Prohibition.

Yet the painting captures a disconnect. While a man of wealth and status tries to engage the interest of a woman sitting with him at a small table, she’s a million miles away—sipping a different drink, turned in another direction, alone in the crowd in 1905 New York City.

Who is this woman, and where is Mouquin’s? The Art Institute of Chicago, which has the painting in its collection, sheds some interesting light.

“In this vivid painting, William Glackens portrayed the members of his circle at their favorite meeting place, the New York restaurant Mouquin’s. Jeanne Mouquin, the proprietor’s wife, shares a drink with James B. Moore, a wealthy playboy and restaurateur, while the artist’s wife, Edith, and art critic Charles Fitzgerald are reflected in the mirror behind them.”

The members of Glackens’ circle also included fellow Ashcan School painters Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. The group began gathering for nightly rendezvous at Mouquin’s after Glackens, Henri, and Sloan all found themselves renting studio space in the Sherwood Building on Sixth Avenue and 57th Street, according to Bennard B. Perlman, author of Painters of the Ashcan School.

While Glackens captured the dynamic between men and women inside the cafe, Shinn painted the exterior of this unusual, colonial-looking structure in wet winter weather (second image, above).

That these painters chose Mouquin’s as their hangout isn’t surprising. Founded by Swiss immigrant Henri Mouquin, the cafe first opened its doors on Nassau Street, then moved to Fulton Street. In the early 20th century, Mouquin’s relocated to the Tenderloin. There, politicians, newspaper writers, artists, and authors enjoyed alcohol-fueled conversations until the 2 a.m. closing time.

This was no stuffy Gilded Age dinner spot. Mouquin’s “always was distinctly New York and like the city, thoroughly cosmopolitan,” wrote the New York Herald in 1919. “Because of this character it has the breadth and freedom of cosmopolitanism. It never troubles itself about the rules.”

What gave Mouquin’s even more atmosphere was the building’s pedigree as a surviving piece of colonial New York City. Originally an 18th century estate house owned by the Varian family, it served as headquarters for Hessian generals during the Revolutionary War.

In 1825, the house was converted into a roadside inn called Knickerbocker Cottage (above, in the 1850s). In the first half of the 19th century, Sixth Avenue at 28th Street was almost the country, far from the din and activity of the main city. By the time Mouquin and his wife moved the cafe here around 1900, the area was in the middle of theaters, gambling houses, and other nightlife venues, accessible via the elevated train roaring overhead.

Mouquin’s entertained an eclectic mix of New Yorkers until the 1920s, when it was done in by Prohibition. The vine-covered, Parisian-like facade disappeared when the structure was knocked down soon after. But what a convivial atmosphere this colonial cottage had in its late Gilded Age heyday!

[Top image: Art Institute of Chicago; second image: Fine Art America; third image: Columbia University; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: Library of Congress]

Winter beauty and misery at the arch at Washington Square

January 2, 2023

Dominating Washington Square Park and the imagination of painter Everett Shinn is the majestic marble Washington Arch, standing guard at the end of Fifth Avenue since 1892.

Here’s the spare beauty of a winter’s night at the arch: the gray-blue sky, and silvery, almost spooky tree branches. The low-rise buildings around the perimeter give the park the look of a town surrounding a village green—which makes sense, because Washington Square Park is the village green for the Village.

But then there’s the human misery of navigating cold, wet, windy weather. Shinn gives us a cab driver trying to control his vehicle, a pedestrian using her umbrella like a weapon, and various people with their heads down for protection against the fierce elements of a New York winter.

The one curious thing is the date of the painting: 1929, according to Christie’s, which auctioned it in 2016 for $47,500. The humans in the painting look like people from 1929. The horse-drawn streetcar and cab, however, must have been painted from memory.

[Source: Christie’s]

Two married artists, two similar views looking outside their East Side hotel window

December 19, 2022

When Alfred Stieglitz met Georgia O’Keeffe in 1916, the 52-year-old photographer and 28-year-old painter began a passionate love affair that led to their marriage in 1924 and an artistic adventure of ups and downs until Stieglitz’s death in 1946.

At the time, Stieglitz was already part of the New York City art establishment. In the early 1900s he founded the Photo-Secession, a movement to accept photography as an art form. His own work, particularly his city scenes, won praise for its softness and depth.

He also established his own gallery, where he exhibited O’Keeffe’s early abstract drawings before falling in love with her and considering her his muse.

After the couple wed, they moved into the Shelton Hotel (bottom image in 1929). A 31-story residential hotel that opened just a year earlier on Lexington Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets, it billed itself as the tallest hotel in the world at the time, with commanding views of the East Side of Manhattan.

Stieglitz and O’Keeffe took advantage of these views. From their apartment on the 30th floor, O’Keeffe painted several images of what she saw outside her window in the 1920s—industry along the East River, the lit-up windows of skyscrapers lining the business corridors of East Midtown after dark.

But one from 1928 struck me the most, and it’s simply titled “East River From the Shelton Hotel” (top image). Though the couple had very different styles and worked in different mediums, the painting feels very similar to a 1927 Stieglitz photo.

“From Room 3003—the Shelton, New York, Looking Northeast” captures the same expansive cityscape of neat and uniform low-rise tenement blocks and belching smoke along the riverfront.

Both works seem to hint that the East Side which came of age in the late 19th century would soon give way to the tall, sleek city of the Machine Age that Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were currently part of.

[First image: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Second image: Art Institute of Chicago; third image: MCNY, X2010.29.218]