Archive for the ‘art’ Category

Two men, an el train, and a produce market in a 1945 mystery painting

March 1, 2021

Figuring out the location of a long-ago image depicting some part of New York City is a fun challenge. So when a reader sent me this painting—the basis for a 1945 Mack truck ad—looking for information on where the scene was set, I was intrigued.

“The caption for the ad said ‘An old AC Mack Bulldog Nose truck at the New York Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market,'” explained the reader.

“Peter Helck, the artist who painted this scene (also my grandfather) was born in Manhattan and lived or worked there most of his life, so he knew the city very well. I believe this represents an actual location and I am hoping you might be able to identify it.”

References to the ‘New York Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market’ turned up vague information. But considering that Manhattan’s main produce market in 1945 was the sprawling Washington Market (above, in 1962), centered on Washington Street and spilling over from Fulton to Chambers Streets and beyond in today’s Tribeca, I figured that was the location of the painting.

The confusing thing, though, was the elevated train—which appears to be a true el, not the High Line, which ran a mostly straight line in and out of warehouses. The closest elevated train to Washington Market would have been the Ninth Avenue Elevated. which ran a block over on Greenwich Street. Unfortunately, I didn’t uncover any images of the Ninth Avenue El on the Lower West Side with such a pronounced curve in it.

But could that curved track run farther up Ninth Avenue beside what’s still known as the Meatpacking District (above in 1938)—a 19th century wholesale market that by the 1940s primarily handled meat and poultry? The Belgian block street certainly look like today’s Little West 12th or Gansevoort Street.

Turns out at Ninth Avenue and 14th Street (below, in 1940), the el does make a curve similar to the curve in the painting. Problem is, the Ninth Avenue el was dismantled in 1940.

Could the artist have added an el train per artistic license? Is the date of the painting earlier than thought? A little more detective work needs to be done.

[Painting: courtesy Tim Helck; first photo: LOC; second photo: MCNY 43.131.6.152; third photo: MCNY X2010.26.171]

An Art Nouveau clock on a downtown skyscraper

March 1, 2021

The Standard Oil Building at 26 Broadway (officially its address spans 10-30 Broadway) has been part of the downtown skyline for almost a century. At street level, the building follows the 17th century contours of lower Broadway, while the 480-foot tower adheres to the city street grid.

Built to serve as the headquarters for this Rockefeller-run company, the 1928 skyscraper also incorporates Standard Oil’s original building, constructed on the same spot in the 1880s.

But there’s something curious at the building’s second entrance at 28 Broadway: a beautifully designed, possibly Art Nouveau-inspired clock.

What’s the backstory on this unusual clock—a timepiece of Roman numerals as well as tendrils and petals similar to the two stone-carved florals below it?

The 1995 Landmarks Preservation Committee report notes the clock briefly: “The two secondary entrances in the Broadway facade are interposed on large arched window openings, both of which are in pedimented door surrounds with clocks mounted above,” the report states.

The other Broadway entrance, at 24 Broadway, opened into a jewelry store, per the LPC report. Today it’s a branch of the New York Film Academy and is topped by a smaller clock with Roman numerals that lacks the decoration of the clock at number 28 (see it here).

Could the clock in question have come from the original building—or perhaps it has some significance to Standard Oil? Or maybe it’s just a stunningly designed naturalistic timepiece that added a nice contrast with this dignified corporate headquarters.

[Third image: MCNY x2011.34.1129]

Greenwich Village from John Sloan’s rear window

February 22, 2021

After John Sloan and his wife left Philadelphia and relocated to New York City in 1904, the couple lived first in Chelsea and then in various places in Greenwich Village, where Sloan also took a studio at Sixth Avenue and Cornelia Street to create art that found “beauty in commonplace things and people,” as he once said, per the Whitney Museum.

From one of those Village apartments or out his studio window, Sloan had a view of the shared rear yards of his tenement neighbors on West Fourth Street. “Backyards, Greenwich Village,” from 1914, was born out of that view.

“Here, a private scene of two children building a snowman in a backyard, with a pair of cats and another child watching them from a window above, brings dignity and romance to lives that would otherwise go unnoticed,” states the Whitney.

It’s hardly the only Sloan painting that featured cats—this Ashcan School founder memorialized a few of the dozen cats living at McSorley’s Bar on East Seventh Street in “McSorley’s Cats,” from 1928.

A forgotten artist and the city’s ‘terrible beauty’

February 8, 2021

Glenn O. Coleman’s career as a celebrated Gotham illustrator and painter was a short one. Born in Ohio in 1887, he grew up in Indiana and arrived in Manhattan in 1905 to attend the New York School of Art, studying under Robert Henri and Everett Shinn.

“Minetta Lane, Night” (not dated)

Coleman earned a name for himself in the 1910s and 1920s city art scene with “personal depictions of simple, struggling humanity,” as the Spellman Gallery put it.

His illustrations (some of which he made into lithographs) and paintings reflected the subject matter of his Ashcan teachers: Bowery bums, election night bonfires, slum kids, cops, criminals, “silk-hatted tourists,” bar stool sitters, and other denizens of Lower Manhattan’s pockets and corners, typically at night.

“Downtown Street,” 1926

In 1910, Henri said this about Coleman, who was exhibiting a series of drawings in New York called “Scenes From the Life of the People” that his hometown Indiana newspaper said had a “Hogarthian spirit”:

“This work of Coleman’s is no confection of art junk….It is the record of a certain life drama going on about us here in New York—one side, very grim—a side shunned by many, but one he has looked upon frankly with open eyes and has understood as the thinker with human sympathy understands.”

“Election Night Bonfire,” (not dated)

Coleman explained in 1910 that he never wants for material, and his art is inspired by his own personal vision of beauty. “Sometimes it is a mad beauty, sometimes a powerful and terrible beauty, sometimes a happy and refreshing beauty. I do not think one thing is more beautiful than another, that is, when I see each thing in its own place.”

A contributor to the socialist journal The Masses and part the groundbreaking Armory Show in 1913, Coleman exhibited widely. But he never made big money off his art. “He gained first-hand acquaintance with the experience of the urban poor: often penniless, he frequently was forced to forgo painting in order to work menial jobs to support himself,” according to Fine Art Limited.

“Coenties Slip,” 1928

Poverty wasn’t Coleman’s only roadblock; his social realist art soon went out of fashion in favor of more abstract styles, which he at one point adapted to his work.

“In the mid-1920s, Coleman’s focus as a painter shifted away from the social environment of the city toward a preoccupation with such formal concerns as the geometry of its massive new architecture,” wrote Fine Arts Limited. “Just as his paintings assumed a more modernist style, however, he returned to his earliest sketches of the city as a basis for a series of more conventionally realistic lithographs that celebrate street life and the city’s ordinary inhabitants.”

“The Bowery,” 1928

At some point in the 1920s, he relocated to Long Beach on Long Island, continuing to paint “the grim comedy of a relentless city,” as one newspaper put it. His work won prizes and was acquired by museums like the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney.

“One Mile House,” 1928

Though he was well-known in his era, his death in 1932 at age 45 didn’t make it into many newspapers. Today, this artist who stayed true to his own muse and vision, who described New York as a city that “comes to me with a mysterious and powerfully absorbing attraction,” has mostly been forgotten.

In a 1910 magazine article, Coleman said: “My pictures may not be exactly like New York life really is—photographically speaking. Who really knows how New York life really is? I have my vision of it, my thoughts, my ideas of it….So these masks of men and women—these disguises of men and women, these curious shapes and forms, these shadows and masses of buildings are images always on my mind and out of these images my pictures are made because they are wonderfully absorbing to me, and because they have this terrible energy of New York life.”

“MacDougal Alley, 1928”

[First and second images: The Whitney Museum of Art; third image: TK; fourth image: TK; fifth image: Phillips Gallery; seventh image: The Whitney Museum of Art]

A snowstorm on Broadway in the Theater District

February 1, 2021

Painter John Sloan, born in Philadelphia, moved to New York City in 1904. Throughout his life he depicted scenes of city residents doing everything from dreaming on rooftops to commuting on the elevated to hanging laundry to partying on Election night.

But “The White Way,” from 1927, is the first Sloan painting I’m aware of that shows the action and activity of Broadway’s Theater District, specifically at 53rd Street. It belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which states this about Sloan’s New York subjects and this work in particular:

“The bustling city streets and crowded tenements supplied the artist with stimulating new subject matter, as seen in this work, which depicts bundled-up pedestrians on a snowy evening at the corner of Broadway and Fifty-Third Street. Recalling the chilly evening in which he sketched this scene, Sloan later commented, “The realization of my surroundings had been frozen in my memory, but I feel that my suffering has been compensated for.”

A site called The Art Story has this comment: “The inspiration for this work was made from a sketch he actually drew in the freezing cold, capturing the atmosphere and energy of a spontaneous moment. While the subject of city life had been a recurring theme for Sloan, this later work celebrated the city as bright and dynamic, with less attention on the individual experience than his earlier Ashcan School paintings. The work is more observational in nature, rendered in a lighter palette and looser brushstrokes that gives it a more impressionistic feel. This represented a general shift in Sloan’s work; soon after this painting was finished, he would shift much of his attention to landscape paintings, portraits, and nudes.”

Central Park’s Mother Goose statue tells many stories

February 1, 2021

Most of Central Park’s wonderful statues tell just one story. The Mother Goose statue, at Rumsey Playfield on the East Drive near 72nd Street, tells many.

Amid the main granite carving of a woman flying on top of a goose—complete with a pointy hat, purse, cloak, buckled shoe, and one unhappy-looking cat riding the clouds—are five bas reliefs of the most beloved Mother Goose fables.

Humpty Dumpty (below), Old King Cole, Little Jack Horner, Mother Hubbard, and Mary and her little lamb are all represented in this whimsical statue dedicated in 1938, explains NYC Parks.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the artist behind these nursery rhyme characters is Frederick George Richard Roth, a city native. Hired in the 1930s as the chief sculptor of the New York City parks department, Roth is the creator behind many other enchanting animal sculptures in Central Park.

“Roth is responsible for a number of other sculptures in the Park as well, including Balto, the Sophie Loeb Fountain, Dancing Goat, and Honey Bear,” states the Central Park Conservatory. He also made the limestone reliefs of animals in and around the Central Park Zoo and Prospect Park Zoo, according to NYC Parks.

Also close to this kid-friendly part of the park are the Hans Christian Anderson and the Ugly Duckling statue and two Alice in Wonderlands, one at East Drive and 75th Street and the other inside Levin Playground (East Drive and 77th Street), the latter created by Roth in 1936.

The entrance to Rumsey Playfield (formerly Rumsey Playground, and before that the Central Park Casino) is just beyond the Mother Goose statue. There, two granite carvings of a boy and a girl bundled up in the cold—one astride a sled, the other on a bench—guard the entrance to the field.

Were these also done by Roth? I didn’t turn up anything about the sculptor, but they’re similarly whimsical and looking ready for this week’s weather.

A 1904 eviction in a New York tenement district

January 25, 2021

Leave it to Everett Shinn, social realist Ashcan artist, to paint an eviction scene that gives viewers much more than just a portrait of a family thrown out of their tenement and onto the street.

In “Eviction (Lower East Side),” we see piles of rickety belongings, men carrying a trunk and what looks like a folded mattress down the building’s stairs. A crowd of onlookers—former neighbors?—watches the eviction, as does a cop, who appears to be standing guard, perhaps in case the crowd rushes to grab the family’s things.

It’s a ghastly scene of anonymous New Yorkers, one that’s part of the Smithsonian and can be seen via magnification here.

Art Deco poetry on a 1929 East Side high-rise

January 25, 2021

You don’t see a lot of green glazed terra cotta on New York City high-rise facades. But then 240 East 79th Street isn’t just another residential building on the Upper East Side.

This “rather plain brick building” completed in 1929 features a showstopping Art Deco entrance, “completely faced in colored glazed terra-cotta squares, with glazed terra cotta surrounds for the windows and the main entrance,” noted Anthony Robins in his book New York Art Deco: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture.

The building’s awning carries the address in a recognizable Art Deco typeface, as does the “No. 240 East 79 St” inscribed above the entrance.

Isn’t that eight-sided emblem amid all the green terra cotta unusual? Robins has this to say about it: “Above the inscription sits an octagonal piece of stone, set within a terra cotta frame and capped by a flowering form that curves out from the facade to hover protectively over it.”

“Frederick Godwin, the architect, was a great-grandson of American poet William Cullen Bryant—and his ornamental treatment here is quite poetic.”

An early image of ice skaters in Central Park

January 11, 2021

The building of Central Park began in 1858. Later that year, the first section opened to the public: the “skating pond,” aka the Lake.

You’ve probably seen paintings and illustrations of 19th century New Yorkers ice skating in Central Park and on the ponds of Brooklyn. But this Currier & Ives lithograph (after a painting by Charles Parsons) might be the earliest.

In “Central-Park Winter, the Skating Pond,” it’s 1862, the middle of the Civil War. Yet the frozen pond is a scene of pure joy: couples in fancy skating outfits (yep, they were a thing) glided together, a rare opportunity for socially acceptable coed mingling.

Kids play, adults fall, a dog is getting in on the fun, and everyone is enthralled by the magic of the ice under Bow Bridge.

[Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Fierce tigers and eagles on a 58th Street co-op

January 4, 2021

Midtown East is the land of elegant 1920s-era apartment houses: handsome buildings of 10, 11, maybe 12 stories that usually feature understated brick and limestone facades.

But 339 East 58th Street has something else going on: fierce creatures in cast stone above Medieval columns and decorative Romanesque arches.

Adorning this co-op, built in either 1920 or 1929 depending on the source (I’m betting on 1929), are two eagle figures standing ramrod straight like soldiers high above the canopied entrance.

Between these avian sentries are two tiger heads emerging from the brickwork just beneath the second floor windows.

I couldn’t find much information about the building and the backstory of the figures as well as the columns and arches surrounding the entrance.

Perhaps there’s no more significance than an architect tasked with creating yet another standard New York City apartment building while dreaming of Medieval Europe’s soaring cathedrals and castles and taking inspiration from illuminated manuscript pages.