Archive for the ‘art’ Category

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]

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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]

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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]

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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]

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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]

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“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]

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“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.

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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]

A walk down Manhattan’s first “block beautiful”

January 9, 2017

New York City has hundreds of breathtaking residential streets that inspire beauty—and deep real-estate envy.

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But perhaps the first “block beautiful,” as it was called by a home design magazine around 1909, is the stretch of East 19th Street between Irving Place and Third Avenue.

19thstreet139The houses here were largely built in the 1850s—two decades after real estate man Samuel Ruggles bought land on a marsh-turned-farm called by the old Dutch name “crommesshie” and remade it into Gramercy Park.

Yet 19th Street’s eclectic charm comes in part from architect Frederick Sterner, who remodeled many of the original houses in the early 1900s, starting with his own at number 139 (left).

Sterner altered traditional brownstones, considered dour by the turn of the century, into more fashionable residences with playful touches like light colors, wide shutters, jockey statues, stucco facades, and colored tiles.

19thstreetgeorgebellowsHis alterations earned high-fives from architectural critics and attracted painters and actors, turning the block into something of an artists’ colony in the 1920s and 1930s.

One of those artists was social realist painter George Bellows, who moved his family into number 146 (right) closer to the Third Avenue end of the block and built an attic studio.

Bellows was known to paint scenes of Gramercy Park, like this one from 1920 with his kids in the center.

19thstreetgiraffepanelsPainter and muralist Robert Winthrop Chanler lived across from Bellows at number 147, the wide and pretty home with the whimsical giraffe panels over the entrances (left).

They mimic the giraffes in one of Chanler’s murals, from 1922.

Tudor-style number 132 (below), built by Sterner, has an illustrious list of former tenants, including muckraking author Ida Tarbull and painter Cecilia Beaux.

19thstreet132cityrealtySome well-known actresses also reportedly lived in this apartment building in the middle of the block: Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Ethel Barrymore, and Theda Bara.

Of course, no New York City block beautiful would be complete without renovated carriage houses, and this pocket of East 19th Street has three.

The two neighbor stables at numbers 127 and 129 (below) near Irving Place may have been built as early as the 1860s.

Their red brick and Gothic touches make them look like they belong in a fairy tale.

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And then there’s teeny tiny number 124, also on the end close to Irving Place, which comes off as a holdover from the colonial Dutch era (below).

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This Flemish-inspired carriage house actually only dates to the late 19th century and for most of its history has been a residence.

Bare trees and orange-brown hills in Central Park

January 2, 2017

Leon Kroll’s “Scene in Central Park” gives viewers the park as he saw it in 1922. It must be winter, or close to it: the landscape is all orange and brown and green amid bare trees.

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Now the question is, which bridge is this. Gapstow over the lake?

A painter renders Union Square’s sea of humanity

August 22, 2016

Shop girls, down and out men, lone pedestrians on the way to the elevated train—from the 1930s to the 1980s, Isabel Bishop observed these men and women from her Union Square artist’s studio, painting them in soft tones that reveal their humanity and fragility.

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Born in 1902 in Cincinnati, Bishop moved to Manhattan at age 16 to attend the New York School of Applied Design for Women. She then took classes at the Art Students League, developing her talents as a printmaker and painter.

Influenced by early Modernists like Robert Henri and old masters such as Rubens, she became associated with the 14th Street School, a group of realist artists that included Reginald Marsh and Raphael Soyer.

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Bishop married in 1934 and moved to Riverdale. But she kept her studio first at Nine West 14th Street and then another at 857 Broadway. The Union Square area in those pre- and postwar decades was home to lower-end department stores, offices, and cheap entertainment venues.

And of course, there was the park itself, a gathering place for everyone from soap-box agitators to workers on their lunch hour to derelict men with no where else to go.

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The subject matter right outside her studio suited Bishop perfectly.

“It was in New York’s pulsating environment that Bishop combined her admiration for the old masters with a contemporary taste for urban realism,” states the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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“With her discerning eye, she portrayed ordinary people in an extraordinary manner, often monumentalizing her figures within spaces that barely created context or indicated a location.”

“She chose average models from the streets of Manhattan and often rendered them in a state of physical activity—a sharp departure from the idealized, passive nudes of previous traditions.”

[“Fifteenth Street and Sixth Avenue,” 1930]

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Bishop focused many of her paintings on women—the otherwise ordinary women who passed through Union Square, coming in and out of offices or catching a train. Neither mothers nor sex symbols, they “exist for themselves,” as one critic put it.

“On the street corner, in the automat, in the subway and on park benches in fine weather, Miss Bishop proved herself a perceptive observer,” wrote the New York Times in her obituary. “For young women in the big city who were as yet unmarked by life, she had a particular feeling.”

[“Fourteenth Street,” 1932]

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As time went on, Bishop’s style seemed to become more muted, with figures of women in what looks like perpetual motion—perhaps a comment on the rise of women in American society.

Bishopselfportrait1927Bishop kept her Union Square studio until 1984; she died in 1988. This self-portrait was done in 1927, when she was just 25.

She isn’t as well-known as she should be, but her amber-hued men and women caught in ordinary, fleeting moments speak to the anonymity and motion of urban life in the 20th century.

[Images 1-4; 6: onlinebrowsing.com; Image 5 and 7, dcmooregallery.com]

Down on his luck at the Brooklyn docks in 1938

April 11, 2016

Reginald Marsh painted the city’s extremes: gaudy, seedy Coney Island, sex at burlesque shows, Bowery revelry, and the might and strength symbolized by ships and industry.

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But his solemn forgotten man (and a second man, lying down on the left) perched at the edge of a dock in 1938’s “Docks, Brooklyn” reveals a loneliness and despair unlike anything depicted in his other paintings and illustrations.

And it just sold for more than $6,000.

The whispering gallery in Grand Central Terminal

September 7, 2015

Among the loveliness inside Grand Central Terminal—the starry-skied ceiling, the clocks, the chandeliers—are some wonderful architectural mysteries.

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One that appears to have been an accident of design is the whispering gallery. It’s on the lower level outside the Oyster Bar, under beautiful original Gustavino tiles on a low domed ceiling.

Face the wall and whisper, and your words can be clearly heard on other side of the 50-foot space—thanks to the way sound waves travel across the vaulted ceiling.

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No evidence exists that the whispering gallery was anything more than a “happy coincidence,” says one of the architects who helped restore Grand Central in the 1990s, states this New York Times piece.

But other sources say it must have been intentional.

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Rafael Gustavino and his son designed this part of the terminal “based on architectural principles that have been used for centuries worldwide—from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing to the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur, India,” according to New York Curiosities.

[Second image: postcard of the Whispering Gallery before the Oyster Bar was added; New York Times]

Enchanting rainy evenings in the Gilded Age city

March 23, 2015

Impressionist painter Charles Constantin Hoffbauer, born in 1875, must have loved the rain.

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He painted many scenes of streetlights and roadways and cable cars and black-clad people slick with rain, some depicting his native Paris but many of New York, where he arrived just before 1910.

His New York is an evening or nighttime city on the move, one of melancholy skies illuminated by billboards and store windows.

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The exact location of each scene isn’t always clear, but the first image could be close to Times Square, with the Times building in the back.

Next up is the very recognizable New York Public Library main building, an El station off in the distance.

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The third might be Madison Square Park’s Met Life Tower, flanked by the second version of Madison Square Garden in dark shadows.

More images of a stormy, moody city can be found here.