Archive for the ‘art’ Category

Pity the tenement dwellers outside on a sweltering summer night in 1883

August 8, 2022

Take a look at this illustration, and you can feel the distress—the relentless nighttime heat that wraps you like a blanket, the airless alley stinking of garbage, and the irritability that comes with spending the night on your tenement roof surrounded by equally miserable neighbors.

Last month I posted an illustration that captured the suffering in the tenements during the heat wave of 1882. This image by illustrator W. A. Rogers, “New York: Heat Wave, 1883,” brings us the same conditions in a different tenement during a different heat wave a year later.

Studying the conditions in the illustration—and the faces, especially of the old woman on the balcony with the fan, and the young mother spread out surrounded by her children—and you’ll really appreciate having an A/C unit or a fan, at the very least!

The pleasures of a New York summer on the Speedway

August 1, 2022

New York in the summer can be a miserable place. But not on the Speedway—aka, the Harlem River Speedway. Here, ladies strolled in their light summer dresses and sportsmen on trotting horses took in the pleasures of open, airy Upper Manhattan along the bluffs of the Harlem River.

Painter and illustrator Jay Hambidge captured a glimpse of this splendid roadway in his 1898 painting “Summer on the Speedway.” The Speedway opened that year in July, spanning the riverfront from 155th Street in Harlem to Dyckman Street in Inwood, according to the Museum of the City of New York.

The bridge is the 1840s High Bridge, stretching from Manhattan to the Bronx—it’s perhaps the only thing in this painting that still exists in the city today.

In 1920, the Speedway was paved and open to motor cars. By 1940, it had become part of Robert Moses’ Harlem River Drive. But for a brief time in Gilded Age New York, it was a refreshing place to stroll and catch cool river breezes on punishing summer days and evenings.

Plus, wheelmen—aka, bicycle riders—were banned, which pleased the upscale, genteel crowd. Too many menacing scorchers!

[MCNY: 34.100.33]

A midcentury painter’s magical nocturne of the Brooklyn Bridge

July 22, 2022

“Brooklyn Bridge” is a curiously plain title for a painting that shrouds much of the bridge, the river, and the piers around it in a Turner-esque swirl of industrial smoke, thick clouds, and the blue glow of dusk or dawn.

Light illuminates small pockets surrounding the bridge’s iconic towers: a tugboat’s smokestack, a wood building on an empty pier, and a retreating human figure turned away from the East River.

The painter is Frank Mason, an artist of many landscapes, seascapes, and portraits who studied at the Art Students League, where he later taught. “Brooklyn Bridge” was painted in 1950, a pivotal year for the bridge, when trolley service crossing back and forth from Manhattan to Brooklyn was discontinued.

Mason’s primary interest probably isn’t the Bridge’s historical timeline. He seems captivated by the light and color at a certain time of night, and it’s easy to understand why. His evocative nocturne becomes more enchanting every time to you view it.

[Image: frankmason.org]

The geometric stillness in a Precisionist painter’s view near Avenue A

July 14, 2022

Niles Spencer was a Rhode Island-born painter who moved to New York City in 1916. “The lively intellectual milieu of Greenwich Village was in its heyday, and Spencer was exposed to many of the radical theoreticians and personalities of the time, who encouraged him to begin working in new directions,” stated New York City’s Forum Gallery.

“Deeply influenced by Cézanne’s faceted explorations of landscape and still life, Spencer’s paintings began to focus on the geometry of architectural shapes and how they related to their landscape.”

The painting above, “Near Avenue A,” was completed in 1933. The scene reduces what looks like a view from the old Gas House District (where Stuyvesant Town is today) to a “spare dynamic, architectonic composition” per the Forum Gallery.

Spencer is often grouped as a Precisionist painter, a style that flourished in the early to mid-20th century. (George Copeland Ault is another Precisionist whose work can be seen here.) “Searching for a singular modern American subject, they venerated the machine and industry as an exaltation of the dynamism of the future,” wrote the Forum Gallery.

“Near Avenue A” is at the Museum of Modern Art. It captures a scene that’s hard to recognize in the Manhattan of today—but the round gas storage tank in the background places it on the East Side of the 1930s.

Where life in New York City was lived “on the steps”

July 11, 2022

Between the cramped spaces, poor ventilation, and shadowy hallways, life inside a New York City tenement could be hard to bear, especially in warm weather. For relief, people headed to their outside steps: men buried themselves in the newspaper, women rocked babies, small kids played games. In a pre-air conditioned city, front stoops were lively places.

It’s unclear exactly where Ashcan painter George Luks captured this scene outside a rundown building. But he appropriately named the painting “On the Steps”—where much of life played out in New York’s tenement districts.

The bookseller at the door in 1940s Greenwich Village

June 27, 2022

The photo, by Berenice Abbott, invites mystery. “Hacker Book Store, Bleecker Street, New York” is the title, dated 1945. Who is the pensive man at the door—and where on Bleecker Street is this?

The answer to the latter question is 381 Bleecker Street, near Perry Street in the West Village. As for the pensive man, it’s likely Seymour Hacker, a bookseller well-known enough in a more literate New York City that he merited a detailed obituary in the New York Times in 2000 when he died at age 83.

“A small, bright-eyed man fluent in four languages, Mr. Hacker was one of the last booksellers to learn his trade from the bookmen whose stores and stands once lined Fourth Avenue between Astor Place and 14th Street,” wrote Roberta Smith. “Born on the Lower East Side in 1917, he grew up in the Bronx and began haunting Fourth Avenue when he was 12.” 

Hacker opened his first bookstore in 1937. “Noting that fine art books were in especially great demand, he opened Hacker Art Books at 381 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in 1946, moving uptown in 1948. Customers included Delmore Schwartz, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mr. Hacker’s friend Zero Mostel,” stated Smith. “Uptown” took Hacker to 57th Street.

Another mystery: why Abbott chose Hacker and his store as the subject for one of her photographs.

[Photo: MCNY: 2014.90.1]

The sweet side of a New York tenement roof in the summer

June 6, 2022

If you’ve never done it, lying out on a tenement roof on a hot summer day might sound very unappealing. It’s sweaty and sticky, there’s barely a breeze, and you can feel as if you’re on view, within the prying eyes of neighbors or strangers in nearby buildings.

But the way John Sloan depicts it in his 1941 etching “Sunbathers on the Roof,” spending the day on tar beach means being in your own private paradise. The low wall around the rooftop can double as a moat keeping out interlopers; sharing a blanket like this couple does adds to the sensuality and intimacy of reclining together in bathing suits.

These two have things to read, suntans to work on, and an attention-seeking cat (a pet or building stray?) to amuse them. The magnificent city they’ve turned their backs to may as well not even exist; they already have everything they need.

[Smithsonian American Art Museum]

The seafaring symbols on a Turtle Bay church’s stained glass window

May 30, 2022

Walk down East 52nd Street between Second and Third Avenues on a bright day, and you’ll probably miss it.

But some nights when the interior lights are on, the spectacular stained glass window in the middle of this five-story church on East 52nd Street illuminates the street below with startling color and beauty.

The window is the visual centerpiece of the Norwegian Seamen’s Church—two former brownstones joined together on a mostly residential block offering Norwegian sailors, students, ex-pats, and visitors from all backgrounds a place of worship as well as a cultural center and coffee spot.

The church has been at the site since 1992, hidden amid a row of low-rise walkups. But its roots go back to the 1870s, when the first Norwegian Seamen’s Church opened on Pioneer Street in Red Hook. Fifty years later, the church moved to Clinton Street and First Place in Carroll Gardens, closer to the Norwegian community in Bay Ridge.

As the community dispersed later in the 20th century, the church made another move, this time to Manhattan.

The details painted on the compass-like window are a visual delight, and I’ll try my hand at interpreting these symbols. In the center is a seagull, flying high over the earth’s horizon approaching the heavens, which are marked by a cross.

In 2018, a church pastor told the Turtle Bay Association website that the seagull, “follows ships at sea, so this is appropriate because Norwegians love to travel and wander around cities like New York.”

On the left is a lamb with a staff and halo—the lamb of God. A Viking ship is painted on the bottom, and on the right, it looks like another bird, perhaps signifying the Holy Spirit. The image at the top is hard to make out, but it looks like it symbolizes the power of God.

A painter’s mystery scene on the Sixth Avenue elevated after midnight

May 19, 2022

Elevated trains were the fastest mode of mass transit in the late 19th century. Lurching and groaning high above the sidewalks along almost all of New York’s avenues, they whisked people to work, to school, to the theater, to Central Park, to department store shopping—all for a nickel per ride.

At night, the elevated invited intrigue. Everett Shinn, former newspaper illustrator best known as a member of the Ashcan School of social realism painting, captures a moment at one end of a poorly lit all-male car in his 1899 work, “Sixth Avenue Elevated After Midnight.”

The solitary walkers across the Depression-era Manhattan Bridge

May 16, 2022

Social realist artist Reginald Marsh has painted Coney Island burlesque performers, sailors and soldiers, forgotten men at lonely docks and Bowery dives, sideshow gawkers, subway riders, and sexily dressed men and women carousing and enjoying the playground that is 1920s and 1930s Manhattan after dark.

But “Manhattan Bridge,” from 1938, is different. It’s a portrait of a muscular bridge and the ordinary, solitary New Yorkers who walk across it—figures not with Marsh’s usual exaggerated expressions but with their backs turned toward us, unglamorous and getting to where they are going.