Archive for the ‘art’ Category

Duane Street like you’ve never seen it before

September 14, 2020

If you’re used to thinking of Duane Street as an affluent downtown street stretching from Foley Square to Tribeca, then this 1877 depiction of a dingy, down and out Duane Street will come as a surprise.

The painter is Louis Comfort Tiffany. Before he made his name by creating stained glass pieces, he studied painting.

The title is “Old New York,” and the painting is part of the collection at the Brooklyn Museum. I wish I knew what brought Tiffany to Duane Street and why he captured this image of rundown storefronts and two men—one busying himself with work and the other standing, perhaps waiting for business.

An Impressionist paints Brooklyn by the water

August 24, 2020

After studying art in Munich, refining his eclectic Impressionist style across Europe, and creating an elegant studio on East 10th Street in Manhattan that reflected his flamboyant persona, painter William Merritt Chase moved to Brooklyn.

[“Afternoon by the Sea, Gravesend Bay” 1888]

It was 1887. The 37-year-old had just gotten married, and he and his new bride chose to live with his parents at their comfortable Brooklyn home as they began having kids.

It’s no surprise, then, that the booming city of Brooklyn was the subject of many of Chase’s landscape paintings.

[“Stormy Day Bath Beach,” 1888]

Chase painted scenes in Prospect Park, Tompkins Park, the Navy Yard, and other lush, verdant parts of the city that reflected Brooklyn’s natural (if landscaped) beauty.

But he also depicted Brooklyn’s beaches—not the honky tonk, tawdry scene at Coney Island but the quieter upper class areas along Gravesend Bay.

[“Bath Beach—a Sketch,” 1888]

By the 1880s, after the railroads came in and made it easier for vacationers to reach Brooklyn’s beaches, Coney Island and Brighton Beach weren’t the only areas that became recreation destinations.

The upper part of Gravesend also evolved into an elite resort and entertainment area, and the resort neighborhood of Bath Beach was created with a nod toward Bath, England.

[“Gravesend Bay (the Lower Bay),” 1889]

Bath Beach had hotels, yacht racing, bathing, and family-friendly entertainment “upon the soft, sea-washed sands,” as one 1887 Brooklyn beach guidebook described it. Gravesend was best-known for its racetrack, which attracted throngs of fans.

Merritt did venture near Coney Island at least once. In “Landscape Near Coney Island,” one icon of Sodom by the Sea can be seen in the background: Coney’s elephant-shaped hotel, made famous when it went up in the 1880s.

[“Landscape Near Coney Island,” date unknown]

The Impressionist painter and his family didn’t stay very long in Brooklyn. In 1891, Merritt became the director of the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art.

His waterside landscapes after that point reflected the sunny, white sandy beaches of the Eastern End of Long Island, where the school was located.

Hanging laundry in a tenement backyard, 1912

August 17, 2020

John Sloan painted many rooftop scenes, typically depicting the ordinary activities he would see on the Greenwich Village and Chelsea roofs of his neighbors.

In 1912, a woman hanging her laundry to dry apparently caught his eye, and the painting “A Woman’s Work” is the result.

It’s Sloan at his best: her face is turned away while she secures the garments to the rope, and the laundry lines and tenements in the background seem to isolate her from the rest of the city.

The painting belongs to the Cleveland Museum of Art. “With its generally sunny mood, the painting lacks the nightmarish qualities of contemporary photographs of slum conditions in New York by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine,” the museum states. “Nevertheless, it offers a window view on how poor and working-class residents lived in America’s biggest city — and how laws and regulations shaped their world.”

The pageantry of The Drive in Central Park, 1905

August 10, 2020

As a social realist painter, William Glackens often depicted scenes of day-to-day life he witnessed in city parks, particularly Washington Square Park. (Makes sense; he lived on Washington Square South in the early 1900s.)

This time, he took his inspiration from Central Park. “The Drive, Central Park” was completed in 1905 and likely shows the East Drive, long the site of carriage parades among the wealthy.

It’s part of the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “In this canvas [Glackens] recorded the weekday ritual of wealthy Manhattanites parading through the park in their elegant horse-drawn carriages,” the caption states. “This tradition drew spectators eager to witness the pageantry, and for all involved, it was an opportunity to see and be seen.”

Portraits of the street sellers of 1840 New York

July 27, 2020

Nicolino Calyo had a peripatetic journey to New York City. Born in Naples in 1799, this classically trained painter fled political rebellions there and in Spain before landing in Baltimore and then in New York City.

In Gotham, his dramatic scenes of the Great Fire of 1835 and narrative landscapes of the Manhattan waterfront made his name as an exiled European artist.

But Calyo also earned notoriety for a very different kind of painting: street portraits. In 1840, he published more than 100 watercolors he titled “Cries of New York” that depicted the tradesmen, vendors, laborers, and peddlers who plied Manhattan’s grimy streets at the time by cart, wagon, and foot.

Calyo’s New York was the pre-Civil War city of oyster stands, hot corn sellers, “market women,” newsboys and match boys, charcoal-heated homes, ice sold out of carts, wagon delivery of eggs and butter, and young attractive women selling strawberries from baskets.

There’s no text beneath their portraits, which exude a cheeky kind of confidence. We’re left to imagine what their lives were like at a time when slavery had recently been fully outlawed (in 1827, to be exact) and a wave of immigrants from Germany and Ireland were crowding into tenant houses—soon to be known as tenements—in Downtown neighborhoods.

The people in his watercolors are all New Yorkers, but this genre depicting the “cries” of people on city streets originated in Europe in the early 16th century, explains Steven H. Jaffe in a rich and astute article on Calyo’s portraits, published in the Museum of the City of New York’s City Courant in 2017.

MCNY has some of Calyo’s portraits in its collection, as does the New-York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum. “Calyo was never a particularly sophisticated painter; his landscapes, faces, and human figures often approach the formulaic quality of folk art or caricature,” wrote Jaffe.

“But his keen eye, the charm and color of his style, and his sensitivity to the urban scene have left us with images that evoke New York’s political culture during the Jacksonian era—the so-called ‘Age of the Common Man’—when universal suffrage for white men and an expanding urban economy bred a popular faith in the abilities and dignity of ordinary working- and middle-class city dwellers.”

[Top image: Flickr; second image: Brooklyn Museum; third image: MCNY 8742; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: MCNY 55.6.12; sixth image: MCNY 55.6.2; seventh and eighth images: Yale Museum of Art]

George Bellows understood New York in summer

July 13, 2020

George Bellows was not a New York native. But this early 20th century painter—who moved to Gotham in 1904 and established himself a leader of the Ashcan school of social realism and worked from his East 19th Street studio—made a career out of depicting both bold and tender scenes of life in New York City.

[Cliff Dwellers, 1913]

Bellows painted the city in every season, particularly winter. Yet it’s his images of New Yorkers in warm weather that seem to truly capture the rhythms and rituals of a New York summer.

[Beach at Coney Island, 1908]

The sweltering heat locked in a tenement courtyard, the nighttime parks where a couple stroll by lamplight under a dark canopy of leaves, the Coney Island beaches, where moral codes could be broken under and outside a tent in the sand—these playful portrayals of the summertime city still speak to the contemporary New Yorker.

[Summer Night, Riverside Drive; 1909]

Even Bellows’ depictions of boys crowded on a waterside dock conveys the thrill—and necessity, in a roasting city still without municipal pools—of goofing around and cooling off with a swim in a river, an activity that was outlawed in the early 1900s.

[Forty-two Kids; 1907]

Not only did Bellows capture the feel of the heated summer city, but he empathized with those he painted.

That includes the subjects in these four paintings: the sweat-soaked tenement dwellers, the lovers on the beach, the couple in the park catching time while walking the dog, and the cub pack of boys smoking, peeing, hanging out, and getting ready to test their boundaries and dive into the water.

A “glorious display of pageantry” on Fifth Avenue

June 29, 2020

Imagine if Fifth Avenue today was decked out in American flags as it was on July 4, 1916—with the Stars and Stripes flying from the roofs and facades of so many buildings.

Impressionist painter Childe Hassam captured this scene, likely near his longtime studio at 95 Fifth Avenue at 17th Street.

Massachusetts-born Hassam, a successful and accomplished artist in his era, gave the painting an illustrious name: “The Fourth of July, 1916 (The Greatest Display of the American Flag Ever Seen in New York, Climax of the Preparedness Parade in May).”

The painting demonstrates how “New Yorkers rallied with patriotic fervor to support the ‘preparedness movement’ in anticipation of the nation’s inevitable entry into the Great War in Europe,” states the New-York Historical Society, which was gifted the painting in 2016.

“Advocates of the preparedness cause staged parades in cities all over the country from 1914 until 1916. One such parade in May 1916―up Broadway and Fifth Avenue, led by an enormous, 95-foot flag and lasting over 11 hours―inspired Hassam to begin working on a series of works, which he painted over the course of three years from 1916 to 1918.”

Hassam supported the US entry into the war; he was a francophile who studied and lived in Paris, like many of his contemporaries.

[Above left, “The Avenue in the Rain,” 1917; at right, “Flags on the Waldorf,” 1916]

A grander parade on July 4, 1916 inspired “The Fourth of July, 1916,” described by the New-York Historical Society as a “glorious display of pageantry.”

Hassam ultimately completed about 30 works in his flags series, depicting the US flag on other city buildings and on Allies Day in May 1917 (above).

If you like his flags, you must see his evocative streetscapes that capture the beauty and poetry on day-to-day life in our metropolis.

The curious figures on a Park Avenue facade

June 22, 2020

Whoever designed the entrance of 55 Park Avenue South, an elegant building completed in 1923, had a sense of the curious and whimsical.

Walk to the front door of this 16-story Murray Hill apartment residence, and you’ll be greeted by what look like two squirrels overhead.

Two gargoyle-like male figures are tucked into the doorway as well, facing each other with their hands together, legs crossed.

Most interesting are the robed male figures carved into the building facade away from the entrance.

One holds a broom and a dustpan, though he’s resting and not using it. Another reads. One appears to have a pail or lamp at his side, plus something I can’t make out in his hand.

And one figure is holding something square on a string or rope, perhaps, touching it with the other hand, almost in contemplation.

A New York painter creates “order against chaos”

June 15, 2020

George Copeland Ault’s still, ordered paintings of New York City in the 1920s and early 1930s look deceptively simplistic.

[“From Brooklyn Heights”]

Known for depicting landscapes and cityscapes in “simple lines and vivid color,” as Smithsonian magazine put it, Ault was considered a Precisionist painter—his work was informed by realism yet emphasized the geometrical forms of his subjects.

[“Ninth Avenue”]

But his work is more than tightly controlled stillness and smoothed-out lines. Painting was Ault’s way of creating “order against chaos,” his wife later told an interviewer in The Magazine Antiques.

[“Stacks Up First Avenue at 34th Street,” 1928]

The chaos Ault was up against could have been the chaos of his era. Born in 1891 into a wealthy family and raised in England, Ault arrived in America in 1911, setting himself up in a New York City studio.

His work spanned the teens to the 1940s, decades dominated by world wars, rising fascism, and economic devastation.

[“Morning in Brooklyn,” 1929]

His personal life also had its chaos. “Ault experienced a great deal of tragedy during the early years of his career,” states the Smithsonian. “One of his brothers committed suicide in 1915, his mother died five years later, and his father died in 1929.” His two remaining brothers took their own lives after the stock market crash.

[“Roofs,” 1931]

“In the 1930s, depressed and struggling with alcoholism, Ault lost touch with many of his artist friends and gallery contacts in New York,” according to the Smithsonian.

He and his wife isolated themselves in Woodstock in the 1940s. But hard times followed, and Ault couldn’t reestablish his career. In 1948, his body was found in a creek; his death was deemed a suicide by drowning.

[“Hudson Street,” 1932]

“Although Ault is often grouped with Precisionists Charles Demuth, Ralston Crawford, and Charles Sheeler, he did not idealize modern life and machinery as they generally did,” states arthistoryarchive.com.

His cityscapes instead are filled with a “sense of disquiet and psychic distress,” the site explains, beneath the antiseptic stillness on the surface.

An 1897 building and a changing West 57th Street

June 1, 2020

When Lee’s Art Shop closed in 2016, New Yorkers lost an interesting and unusual place to buy art supplies and crafts.

What was also lost? An excuse to visit interesting and unusual 220 West 57th Street.

Lee’s occupied the four-story building since 1975. Completed in 1897, the building reflects the rise and fall of this stretch of 57th Street as both a cultural hub and a point along Manhattan’s “Automobile Row.”

It’s not easy to recognize now, as 57th Street is undergoing luxurification with new offices and residential towers. But in the late 19th century, the street first took shape as an artistic center.

Early apartment residences that catered to artists and musicians went up, such as The Osborne across the street.

Studio buildings were also built, joined by the Art Student League (also across the street), Carnegie Hall (a half-block east), and numerous galleries and music showrooms.

So it made sense when the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which included architects, decided to build their headquarters in the late 1890s on West 57th Street, a budding center of the arts and creativity.

The ASCE clubhouse, complete with reading rooms, a library, and an auditorium, opened its doors in November 1897. (Above left, in 1897, and at right, in 1903.) Reviews lauded the building as interesting, artistic, and harmonious.

One reviewer called it “a beautiful example of French Renaissance in Indiana limestone richly carved,” per the Landmarks Preservation Commission report in 2008.

In 1917, after an annex had been added, the ASCE moved to West 39th Street and began leasing 220 West 57th Street.

The businesses that rented and altered the space in 1918 were also a reflection of the industry that encompassed Broadway and West 57th Street: cars.

Early in the century, Broadway between roughly Times Square and West 66th Street was the city’s “automobile row.”

“By 1910, there were dozens of automobile-related businesses, including many small automobile or body manufacturers, lining Broadway particularly between West 48th Street and Columbus Circle,” stated the LPC report.

Ajax Rubber Company, which made tires, moved into 220. The ground floor was renovated with big showroom windows, and then the ground floor was subleased to Stearns-Knight Automobiles, a luxury car maker based in Cleveland.

Automobile Row lasted into the 1980s. But by the late 1920s, 220 West 57th changed hands again.

It became a Schrafft’s, the casual lunchroom-restaurant chain with franchises all over the city (and such a storied New York business in the 1940s and 1950s, it even made it into a J.D. Salinger story).

Schrafft’s served its much-loved sandwiches, ice cream, and even alcohol (after Prohibition was lifted) for almost 50 years here, catering to shoppers and theater-goers until the chain’s better days had passed and stores shut down in the 1970s.

Lee’s took the space in 1975, later expanding to all four floors. Remnants of the previous tenants remained, according to Christopher Gray, who visited the space in 2000.

“But all around there are tattered fragments of the 1897 building: delicate plaster friezes of floral ornament, wooden trim and gilt decoration,” wrote Gray in The New York Times. “And a Schrafft’s devotee could recognize the restaurant’s 1928 brass and iron staircase, and the marble trim around the second-floor elevator.”

Twenty years after Gray’s visit, Lee’s is gone, and the building sits empty. What’s to become of the delicate limestone structure designed to fit into West 57th’s artistic and then automobile ethos? There’s been talk of new development, but it remains to be seen.

[Third image: American Architect and Building News via Landmarks Preservation Committee Report; fourth image: Landmarks Preservation Committee Report; sixth image: Alamy; seventh image: LOC]