Archive for the ‘art’ Category

Cholera’s grim warning for tenement landlords

March 30, 2020

When New York’s first cholera epidemic hit in 1832 and killed 3,515 people (out of a population of 250,000), the poor took the blame.

“Many city officials implicated the residents of the poorest neighborhoods for contracting cholera, blaming their weak character, instead of viewing the epidemic as a public health problem,” stated Anne Garner, in an online article from the New York Academy of Medicine in 2015.

Cholera struck again in 1849, but by the time the next outbreak happened in 1866, cholera was better understood to be a contagious disease transmitted via contaminated water and other unsanitary conditions.

This 1866 illustration from Harper’s Weekly pins the blame on a different target: the landlords of New York’s tenements—substandard buildings that in the absence of strong housing laws often lacked ventilation and running water and were perfect breeding grounds for cholera.

New York in 2020 feels like Edward Hopper’s city

March 23, 2020

The exterior city is what unsettles you first. Streets and sidewalks are quiet, lifeless. You see other people going in and out of shops or walking the dog, yet whenever you decide to get some air, six feet away from the occasional passerby, you feel like you’re the only person in all of New York.

(“Morning Sun,” 1952)

Then there’s the interior isolation. So much time spent in your own home (or newly transformed home office) kicks up a sense of alienation from the city that always energized you.

(“Office in a Small City,” 1953)

Who understood more about the disconnection and dehumanization bred by modern life in New York City than Edward Hopper?

(“Approaching a City,” 1946)

It’s the theme of so many of his urbanscapes: the lone man in his office, walled in behind glass and concrete; a train tunnel looking like a abyss. Depictions of roads and trains feel frozen and dehumanized.

(“From Williamsburg Bridge,” 1928)

Okay, maybe it’s not quite that eerie and still in New York City right now, at least not every moment. We have the other members of our households to break the isolation, and time with screens can make us feel connected again.

But in these days of social distancing and self-isolation, it’s pretty normal feel in your bones what Edward Hopper captured—especially in these four paintings.

The man in one of New York’s oldest photos

March 9, 2020

He’s young, handsome, and decked out in a formal suit coat with what looks like a tie. This daguerrotype portrait of him dates back to 1840, just as daguerrotype photography was introduced to America.

Who is he? His identity may be lost to the ages.

But we do know who took the photo: Samuel F.B. Morse (below, years later as an older man), who would be credited with inventing the telegraph in 1844.

Before sending the first telegraph message, Morse was a painter and professor of art at the new University of the City of New York—later to be renamed New York University.

While studying in Europe, he met Louis Daguerre and learned his process for capturing images.

After returning to the US in 1839, Morse set up a studio on the roof of the Old University Building on Washington Square with John William Draper, a chemistry professor also interested in Daguerre’s process. (Draper created this portrait of his sister in the studio in 1840.)

In this studio, Morse “received many students who paid him to teach them the new daguerreotype process,” states the Library of Congress. (Mathew Brady, the famed Civil War photographer who would launch his first studio on Broadway in 1844, was one.)

Perhaps the young man in the image was an earnest daguerrotype student. Maybe he’s the scion of an old money family and wanted a selfie. Or he could be an NYU kid recruited as a model because of his good looks.

Whoever he is, he’s the subject of one of the earliest photographic images ever taken in New York City.

“This simple portrait of an unknown sitter, who clearly strains to keep his eyes open during the long, twenty-to-thirty minute exposure, is the only extant daguerreotype by Morse and one of the earliest photographs made in America,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has it in its collection.

“The strength of the portrait is in the young man’s rapt expression, which seems to reflect a subtle awareness of his participation in a grand endeavor. The mindful sitter is one of the first in photography to return the gaze of the viewer.”

[Top and middle images: Metmuseum.org]

The men who took the Fulton Ferry in 1914

March 2, 2020

In 1814, Robert Fulton’s Fulton Ferry Company began regular steamboat ferry service between Brooklyn and Manhattan. A century later, artist Herbert Bolivar Tschudy depicted the ferry and some of its riders in “Fulton Street Ferry, Evening, 1914.”

Tschudy’s ferry riders are men painted like a monolith in dark colors, the Manhattan skyline like a fortress in the distance.

None of the riders look our way or even at one another. It’s the pose all commuters take, whether they’re on a ferry or subway or bus: don’t make eye contact, get lost in your thoughts or the view, and wait quietly until the ride is over.

A printmaker’s New York in shadows and light

February 24, 2020

Martin Lewis’ masterful etchings—which offer shadowy, poetic glimpses of 1920s and 1930s New York—have been featured on Ephemeral New York many times before.

[“Dock Workers Under the Brooklyn Bridge,” 1916-1918]

But just when I’d given up on finding new examples of the way he illuminates the darker (and sometimes darkly humorous) edges of the cityscape, I came across the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s digitized collection—which includes a trove of Lewis’ etchings.

[“Tree Manhattan,” no date]

His street scenes demonstrate a deep understanding of the city’s many moods. Yet Lewis wasn’t a New York native. Born in Australia, he made his way to Manhattan in the early 1900s.

[“Derricks,” 1927]

By 1905, he was living on West 14th Street and making a living as a commercial artist, according to a biography on The Old Print Shop website, where his work is featured.

[“The Great Shadow,” 1925]

His first surviving etchings date to the mid-1910s. But his compositions from the 1920s and 1930s are the ones that made his name, giving him access to galleries and shows.

[“Subway Steps,” 1930]

These are finely detailed illustrations—mostly nocturnes—of solitary figures or crowds. People are coming and going along sidewalks and subway staircases, on their way home from a night out or heading to work in the morning.

[“Break in the Thunderstorm,” 1930]

Some are on rooftops or in alleys, others portray people working the night shift as the rest of the city is safe in well-lit apartments. Laundry hangs on lines; tenements are dwarfed by the glowing interiors of towering buildings.

Lewis often featured kids playing and young women dressed for a night on the town. He didn’t always indicate the exact setting of his street scenes, but he sometimes put a neighborhood or bridge in the title. (The locations of the work in this post, unfortunately, are shrouded in mystery.)

It’s hard to explain why Lewis’ surviving prints still resonate today. A New York Times review of his work from 1929 suggests that he captures the contradictions inherent in New York—the shifting light and darkness, the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness.

Interestingly, the faces of his figures are often hidden from view. But based on their body language and the surrounding street scene, we can imagine what they’re thinking and feeling.

[All images: Smithsonian American Art Museum]

A Manhattan train station had a potbelly stove

January 13, 2020

Imagine how much better your winter workday commute would be if your station had a potbelly stove—which you could wait beside in toasty comfort?

Train riders at this West Side station had that luxury, as seen in one of the wonderful photos taken by Berenice Abbott in the 1930s for her legendary book, Berenice Abbott’s New York.

The potbelly stove photo was captured on February 6, 1936. We know the exact date—but which train station is this?

Over the years, it’s been misidentified as a subway station. But it’s actually an above ground El station, per Abbott’s photo caption: “”El station Interior, Sixth and Ninth Avenue lines, downtown side, 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue, Manhattan.”

The skyscraper tree grates at Rockefeller Center

January 13, 2020

Look up to the sky at 50th Street and Fifth Avenue, and you’ll see the iconic skyscraper 30 Rock—the sleek, 66-story beauty at the center of the Art Deco complex of towers developed by the Rockefeller family in the 1930s.

Now look down at the sidewalk you’re standing on. Embedded into the concrete are metal tree grates with a similar Art Deco skyscraper design.

A lovely touch, right? The interesting thing is that the skyscrapers in the grates don’t exactly look like the gleaming buildings at Rockefeller Plaza.

With their stacked shape and tall antennas, these mini-scrapers actually resemble the Empire State Building, standing proud since 1931 just 16 blocks south.

Perhaps the skyscraper grates are less of an homage to Rockefeller Plaza as a mini-city of silver towers and more of a nod to the skyscraper era itself—when the Empire State Building, 30 Rock, the Chrysler Building, and others defined the New York City skyline and became emblems of optimism during the bleak years of the Depression-era city.

[Rockefeller Center, 1930: MCNY]

How Edward Hopper sees the Manhattan Bridge

December 30, 2019

Edward Hopper has painted the Manhattan Bridge before; “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” from 1928, depicts this least-celebrated East River crossing with “eerie stillness” and a sense of solitude and isolation.

Two years earlier, he captured something similar in “Manhattan Bridge” (owned by the Whitney Museum). It’s a scene free of human beings and any clue about the time of day or season of the year.

The Manhattan Bridge span (only 17 years old in 1926) is flowy and graceful. The low-rise red building at the water’s edge is literally on its last legs; it leans away from the bridge like it’s afraid of it.

The scene seems so passive, it’s almost as if time is standing still…but time is rushing forth. The old city of wood shacks is bowing down to the modern metropolis of steel bridges that are supposed to connect people in an urban landscape that actually isolates.

Knitting for soldiers in an upper Manhattan park

December 16, 2019

When Ashcan painter George Luks completed this painting of a group of women knitting in Highbridge Park on the Manhattan side of the Harlem River, he gave it the one-word title “Knitting.”

But it was 1918, and amid the war effort, “critics naturally assumed that the scarves and gloves were being made for soldiers,” notes terraamericanart.org. Hence the amended title, “Knitting for the Soldiers.”

It’s an unusual piece of art from Luks, who tended to focus on the gritty realism of the city’s poorer pockets. A move from Greenwich Village to Upper Manhattan, however, changed his focus.

“While taking advantage of the expressive possibilities of paint, Luks suggested details of costume and gesture with a sharp reporter’s eye: the women’s garments are simple, yet fashionable enough to mark them as comfortably middle-class. Varying in age from young to elderly, they work in silent camaraderie,” states terraamericanart.org.

Portraits of family bliss in 19th century New York

December 16, 2019

We’re in the season of holiday cards, particularly family photo cards. You might have a pile of them right now—family members, especially kids, appearing joyful in the warm embrace of domestic life.

Well-heeled New York families in the 19th century couldn’t curate their Instagram account to find the right picture representing family tranquility. And while photography studios abounded in the city after the Civil War, photo portraits were posed and formal.

So how did families convey their domestic and material comforts? By commissioning a painted portrait, as the family of Robert Gordon did above, in the parlor of his home at 7 West 33rd Street in 1866.

“The Contest for the Bouquet: The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining-Room,” was painted by Seymour Joseph Guy. Guy, a British painter, went on to do many more family portraits, called “conversation pieces” because of the narrative elements that help tell the story of the family.

In this case, Mrs. Gordon is clearly the center of domestic life in the household, sending her children off to school after breakfast (likely made by a cook) in a sumptuous Renaissance Revival dining room.

In the second portrait, the narrative elements hint at the larger world outside the domestic sphere. “Christmas-Time, the Blodgett Family,” painted by Eastman Johnson in 1864, shows a wealthy family’s restrained Christmas decor (see the wreath and tree in the background) in the parlor of their home at 27 West 25th Street.

“Depicted during the Civil War, at a time of urban upheaval, the serene interior decorated for Christmas, embodies ‘the best sentiment of home,’ as a critic observed in 1865,” states the description of the painting at Metmuseum.org, the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Only the toy of a caricatured black male dancer held by the young boy hints at pressing issues of racial strife and emancipation.”

The third painting takes us to the New York of 1880, where a wife and mother posed with her four lovely children in a luxurious dressing gown.

The woman in the portrait is Cornelia Ward Hall, wife of businessman John H. Hall; the stunning portrait is by Italian painter Michele Gordigiani. I’m not sure where the Hall family home was, but the parlor decor reflects the fashionable Asian-inspired aesthetic of the era.

Eastman Johnson was also the artist behind the fourth family portrait, depicting three generations of the Hatch family in their home at 49 Park Avenue in 1870-1871. Alfrederick Smith Hatch was a Wall Street broker in the firm of Fisk and Hatch, which helped finance railroads. (He’s the man seated on the right at a desk.)

Considering that Hatch is posing not only with his immediate family but with his father and his mother-in-law, this family portrait gives us a man who wasn’t just abundant in terms of his finances, but also abundant in family members. (I count 11 kids in that parlor!)