Archive for the ‘art’ Category

A vision of a colonial-era country mansion inside an East Side apartment lobby

November 28, 2022

Imagine the Upper East Side along the East River from the 1700s until roughly the Civil War.

In a time of booming population and rapid development, this stretch of Gotham remained sparsely populated, dotted with grand old estate houses surrounded by woods, streams, and mostly unspoiled countryside.

The Astors, Rikers, and Gracies are among the Old New York families who built unpretentious, comfortable wood-frame estate houses here, with characteristic wide porches to better enjoy the river breezes and beautiful views.

Almost all of these estates homes have disappeared, the pretty houses and spacious grounds subsumed by the march of urbanization through the end of the 19th century.

But one 1960s apartment building has found a way to memorialize the country life that existed on its footprint a century earlier.

The building is the Pavilion (below), a white-brick, luxury rental with a fountain in front of its circular driveway. It’s exactly the kind of postwar apartment house you wouldn’t expect to have a floor-to-ceiling lobby mural marking a long-gone era in Manhattan history.

Yet there it is behind the front desk: the image of an 18th or 19th century estate house overlooking a gentle East River, a sailboat on the water, pavilion on the grounds, and trees swaying in the breeze.

The artist behind the mural isn’t named, and a simple plaque states “nearby country mansion and pavilion, circa 1850.”

It’s a wonderful old-school vision inside a modern apartment house. But whose mansion was it?

The Pavilion is at 500 East 77th Street, between York Avenue and Cherokee Place. The nearest estate house in pre-Civil War Manhattan was the Riker Mansion, once “at the foot of 75th Street East River,” per the caption on the above illustration, from 1866.

The mural, then, likely honors the Riker mansion. But the porches are dissimilar, and the Riker mansion appears to have a third floor of dormer windows in the 1866 illustration.

Perhaps the artist took liberties with the image of the mansion, combining features from other illustrations—and from Gracie Mansion on 88th Street and East End Avenue, the only one of these country houses to still exist (above)—to create a composite representation of a type of house and way of life that is lost to the ages.

[Top image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL]

An immigrant printmaker and painter gives color and light to Depression-era New York City

November 21, 2022

Max Arthur Cohn was a prolific 20th century artist of many mediums. But whether a silkscreen print, oil painting, mural, or lithograph, Cohn’s work imbues nuanced scenes of midcentury New York City with bursts of color and Ashcan-inspired realism.

(“Rainy Day/Victor Food Shop,” date unknown, seriograph)

His early years echo those of so many early 20th century immigrants. Born in London in 1903 to Russian parents, Cohn and his family settled in America two years later, moving to Cleveland and then Kingston, New York. At 17, he landed his first art-related job in New York City: making commercial silkscreens.

(“New York Street Scene,” 1935, oil)

Silkscreening seemed to become Cohn’s creative focus. At the Art Students League—where he studied under John Sloan—he’s thought to have made his first artistic screenprint, according to the Annex Galleries. In 1940, he founded the National Serigraph Society (a serigraph is another word for a silkscreen print) and exhibited his prints in New York galleries.

Cohn, who spent much of his long life residing in Gotham, is also credited with teaching a young Andy Warhol the silkscreening process in the 1960s, according to Sotheby’s.

(“Washington Square,” 1928, oil)

During the Depression, Cohn found employment at the Works Progress Administration. The small stipend the WPA paid to artists must have been welcome support during these lean years of national financial uncertainty.

“In 1934, as part of the New Deal, he was selected as one of the artists for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and from 1936-1939 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Easel Project,” states arts agency

(“Hooverville Depression Scene,” 1938, oil)

The work featured in this post don’t reflect Cohn’s later artistic style, which became more abstract. Instead, they reveal an artist with a sensitivity to New York City’s rhythms and moods from the 1920s to 1940s.

I’ve read a fair amount about Cohn, and what strikes me most is that he doesn’t seem to belong to any one school. Art historians have described him as a pointillist, modernist, and American scene artist. I see the influence of the post-Impressionists and the Ashcan School, sometimes with a Hopper-esque quality as well.

(“New York City Subway,” 1940s, oil)

There’s no need to categorize him. However you’d describe his style, Cohn—who died in 1998 at age 95—gives us a long-gone midcentury Manhattan of oil drums, el trains, and corner gas stations bathed in magical color.

[First, second, and third images: Invaluable; fourth image: Milwaukee Museum Mile; fifth image: 1stDibs]

The story of the two young faces on an 1861 Turtle Bay row house

October 24, 2022

It’s a charming scene on the facade of 328 East 51st Street: a boxy bas relief sculpture of two short-haired young children. One holds what seems to be a pet, perhaps a kitten, while the other looks on and touches it with tenderness.

Such a sweet depiction in a domestic setting would lead you to assume that the children were part of a family that once resided in the house, built in 1861 between First and Second Avenues.

Turns out the real-life children in the bas relief never lived at number 328; their childhood home was a stunning mansion farther uptown. And while questions remain about their connection to the artist who sculpted it, how it came to be installed above the door in the 1960s is less of a mystery.

First, the identity of the children: They are Julia and Louise Comfort Tiffany, the twin daughters of artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, according to a New York Times FYI column from 2000 by Christopher Gray.

The twins were born in 1887 to Tiffany’s second wife. Julia and Louise are two of Tiffany’s eight children, and they resided with their parents in the Tiffany family mansion on 72nd Street and Madison Avenue. (Julia and Louise are the granddaughters of Charles Tiffany, founder of the jewelry store.)

Twins Julia and Louise Comfort Tiffany as babies in a family photo, 1888

The bas relief of the sisters was made by Mary Lawrence Tonetti, according to Gray. Born into a prominent old New York family, Tonetti was a rare female sculptor of the Gilded Age—studying at the Art Students League under Augustus Saint-Gaudens before becoming his assistant in the 1890s.

How did Tonetti come to sculpt the faces of Julia and Louise? “Neither the date nor the circumstances of the commission are known, but the Tiffany twins appear to be about 10 or 12 in the panel, which suggests it was done around 1900,” wrote Gray.

328 East 51st Street in 1939-1941, without the bas relief on the facade

The connection between Tonetti and the Tiffany sisters appears to be lost to the ages. But Gray has an explanation for how the sculpture ended up on 328 East 51st Street.

The row house was purchased in 1965 by a former stage actress named Katharine Cornell. Cornell’s name might draw a blank today, but she gained fame in the 1930s and 1940s for her many starring turns on Broadway, playing the leads in 1931’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Romeo and Juliet in 1934.

Cornell’s leading-lady status was so solid, she was dubbed “first lady of the theater” by the critic (and Algonquin Round Table member) Alexander Woollcott, according to her 1974 New York Times obituary.

Cornell had been friendly with Tonetti when the two were neighbors in Sneden’s Landing, a small village on the Hudson River waterfront in Rockland County. Cornell had seen Tonetti’s sculpture of the Tiffany sisters and took a liking to it, according to Gray’s Times piece.

Tonetti died in 1945. When Cornell moved from Sneden’s Landing to East 51st Street in 1965, Tonetti’s daughter-in-law gave her a copy of the sculpture a housewarming present, states Gray.

Cornell passed away almost 50 years ago, and the row house has long since changed hands. But the young faces of Julia and Louise Comfort Tiffany remain—an anonymous ode to the innocence and wonder of two little girls.

This isn’t the only bas relief of children on a New York City residence. Outside a Gilded Age mansion on Riverside Drive and 89th Street, Isaac and Julia Rice installed this frieze of their six beloved children. Though weathered and faded, it still stands today.

[Third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

Scenes of misery and charity on Gilded Age New York’s most famous breadline

October 17, 2022

The Gilded Age ushered in opulent mansions, ostentatious balls, and very conspicuous consumption. But this era synonymous with wealth also brought us the breadline—where impoverished New Yorkers stood in the shadows night after night, waiting their turn to obtain a free meal.

“Fleischmann’s Bread Line,” by Everett Shinn, about 1900

Breadlines (many of which distributed more than bread) proliferated by the turn of the century at Gotham’s missions and benevolent societies created to serve the poor. But the first breadline, where the term originates, started at a fashionable bakery on Broadway and 10th Street in 1876.

Louis Fleischmann, a prosperous Austrian immigrant, owned the Vienna Model Bakery next door to Grace Church on the edge of the Ladies Mile shopping district. One December night, Fleischmann saw a group of men huddled in front of a steam grate beside the store. He brought the men—or “hungry tramps,” as one newspaper described them—some unsold bread left in the bakery. They accepted it eagerly.

Fleischmann’s Vienna Model Bakery during the daytime, 1898

More men showed up the next night, forming a quiet line at the back door. Touched by their plight, Fleischmann decided that anyone who queued up by midnight would be given half a loaf of leftover bread, no questions asked. For the next four decades, Fleischmann distributed bread (as well as hot coffee) to sometimes hundreds of men per night on his “breadline,” as it became known.

City newspapers covered Fleischmann’s breadline heavily, some with sympathy and others with a hint of disdain. “Here are men whose lives are not running well—400 small worlds gone to shipwreck,” reported the New York Press in 1902. The New-York Tribune wrote in 1904, “The picturesque and pitiful line of men in the early hours of every morning has become one of the features of the city’s life.”

At the head of Fleischmann’s breadline, 1904, photographer unknown

While New Yorkers debated whether the breadline helped the hungry or instead contributed to “pauperism” and encouraged men to accept handouts, painters, illustrators, and photographers were drawn to Fleischmann’s, where they captured scenes of charity and misery.

Whether painted by social realists such as Everett Shinn and George Luks or shot by news photographers like George Bain, these images depict anonymous men in black hats and coats awaiting their half a loaf and cup of coffee. The humanity of the often faceless men is the focus; the argument as to whether such handouts were helpful or hurtful doesn’t factor in.

George Bain’s view of a snowy night on the breadline in 1908

The one curious breadline painting comes from George Luks. Like Everett Shinn, Luks was a member of the Ashcan School, and his work typically reflected a gritty early 20th century city.

In 1900, Luks painted children on a bakery breadline, even though there’s no documentation that young people ever came to Fleischmann’s or any other nighttime breadline. The kids in Luks’ painting have baskets to fill with stale bread, which they may be bringing home to hungry family members.

“Breadline,” by George Luks, 1900

Or perhaps putting kids on his breadline was Luks’ way of drawing attention to the thousands of homeless children who lived on the streets or in lodging houses, working in legitimate jobs or joining criminal gangs. Access to a breadline could have kept these “street arabs,” as they were dubbed, from going to bed hungry.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: MCNY; third image: National Gallery of Art; fourth image: Alamy; fifth image: George Bain Collection/LOC]

The mysterious woman on the “little penthouse” of a 1930s tenement roof

October 3, 2022

Martin Lewis had a thing for New York City rooftops. They made excellent vantage points for this Australia-born artist’s drypoint prints, allowing him to depict nuanced moments on the streets of the 1920s and 1930s city: kids at play under the glow of shop lights, young women on the town illuminated by street lamps, and New Yorkers going about their lives unaware that someone is watching.

But Lewis also looked to roofs as if they were theater stages, capturing the cryptic scenes that played out on them. Case in point is the mysterious woman in a print he titled “Little Penthouse,” from 1931.

The little penthouse appears to be the stubby rooftop structure many tenements had that led to an interior staircase. The penthouse as a place of luxury was a new concept in the 1920s, but this rooftop is anything but luxurious.

The woman stands before it, stylishly but plainly dressed. Layers of the wider city are all around her: the brick fortress-like wall of a neighboring building , another row of low-rise dwellings, taller modern structures, even a skyscraper with a pinnacle or antenna illuminating the night sky.

The layers lend the scene great depth, and combined with the shades and tones of the print emphasize her aloneness. She’s the only person in the image, elevated on a rooftop but perhaps not elevated according to the society she lived in—she’s on a tenement roof in the dark, after all.

She seems to be hesitating to go inside and down the stairs into the building. Is she actually alone, or is she addressing another person out of view? Does the little penthouse lead to safety, or is she in danger? She could be a maid, perhaps, ending her day by bringing something to the roof for her employers.

Like so many of Lewis’ masterful scenes of Gotham’s dark corners and shadows, he leaves us with more questions than answers.

The spooky spider web windows on 57th Street

September 30, 2022

The scary season is upon us, and Halloween-loving New York City residents are decorating their front stoops, windows, and terraces with witches, skeletons, and spider webs. But one East Side apartment building flaunts cast-iron spider webs across its front windows all year long.

The spider web windows are at 340 East 57th Street, a 16-story vision of prewar elegance between First and Second Avenues. Look closely at the service door above: this web has a black spider sitting in it, waiting and watching. It looks particularly Halloween-like with the orangey glow from the inside light.

The building’s architect, Rosario Candela, was one of the legendary designers of Manhattan’s most exclusive residences in the 1920s. I’ve posted about this building before, and I still don’t know if he had a hand in creating those spider web window guards.

If so, I appreciate Candela’s sense of spooky playfulness. Also playful but not quite spooky: the whimsical seahorse reliefs below the second-story windows.

The short life of the multi-family Tiffany mansion on Madison Avenue

September 26, 2022

In 1882, Charles Lewis Tiffany decided to build an enormous new residence for himself and his family.

The early years of the mansion, almost alone in the wilds of the Upper East Side

This wouldn’t be unusual for a rich, prominent merchant in Gilded Age New York City. Tiffany was that Tiffany, the man who launched a stationary and fine goods shop in 1837 that soon grew to become the internationally famous jewelry store.

What might have seemed odd was the location Tiffany chose for his family castle. Rather than gravitating toward Fifth Avenue just below Central Park, where other elite new money New Yorkers were building elegant homes, Tiffany planned his mansion on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street—a mostly empty stretch of Manhattan that had yet to fulfill its destiny as a wealthy residential enclave.

The Tiffany mansion between 1900-1910, with more neighbors on Madison Avenue

Perhaps he had an affinity for Madison Avenue; Tiffany lived at 255 Madison near 38th Street at the time. Or it may have been an opportunity to “procure a large footprint of land on a wide cross street, ensuring not only extra light but also ample southern exposure,” wrote Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen in Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall.

Tiffany hired McKim, Mead & White to design what would be one of the largest dwelling houses in New York, even by Gilded Age standards. Working closely with Stanford White in particular was Charles Tiffany’s son, Louis Comfort Tiffany. Louis had studied painting before becoming an innovative and acclaimed decorative artist-craftsman and starting Tiffany Studios, “renowned for pottery, jewelry, metalwork and, especially, stained glass,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2006 New York Times piece.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, far left; Charles Tiffany is in the center holding Louis’ kids in 1888

The mansion, completed in 1885, was a 57-room showstopper that dwarfed its few neighbors. There was another unusual aspect to it: the gigantic house was actually three separate residences for separate Tiffany family members.

“The first, on the first and second floors, was frequently said to be for Charles, but he never occupied it,” wrote Gray. “The second apartment, taking up the third floor, was for Louis’s unmarried sister, Louise; the third, on the fourth and fifth floors, was for Louis himself.”

Louis’ first wife died before the mansion was finished, and the widower moved in with his four young children from their previous residence on 26th Street. (He would soon remarry and have four more kids.) Louise stayed with her parents at 255 Madison, according to Michael Henry Adams, writing in HuffPo.

To enter the house meant walking through a huge stone arch, which led to a central courtyard. “The structure was crowned by a great tile roof—substantial enough to have covered a suburban railroad station—and by a complex assemblage of turrets, balconies, chimney stacks, oriel windows and other elements in rough-faced bluestone and mottled yellow iron-spot brick,” noted Gray.

Of course, a mansion of this size and pedigree attracted the attention of architectural critics, who either loved it or hated it. Ladies’ Home Journal dubbed it “the most artistic house in New York City,” thanks in part to detail on the facade and ornament, wrote Frelinghuysen. A detractor called it “the most conspicuous dwelling house in the city,” she added.

Louis reserved the fifth floor for his studio, which was three to four stories high and situated amid the mansion’s gables, according to Gray. Accounts from visitors suggested that the studio was a showcase for Louis’ talent and creativity, as well as his collections of exotic objects and furnishings. It also served as a “sanctuary from the daily bustle,” wrote Frelinghuysen.

“A forest of ironwork, brasses and decorative glassware suspended from the ceiling made the atmosphere even more obscure and mysterious,” added Gray. “Near the center was a four-hearth fireplace, feeding into one sinuous chimney made of concrete. It rose from the floor like an Art Nouveau tree trunk.” Makes sense; Louis took his inspiration from nature.

An 1886 sketch of the house, dwarfing the two men on the sidewalk

In 1905, after the elder Tiffany passed away, Louis built a country estate near Oyster Bay, Long Island called Laurelton Hall. As the decades went on, he began spending more time there, moving some of the furnishings and objects from his Madison Avenue to his estate house.

He died in the Madison Avenue mansion in 1933 at the age of 84; the house met the wrecking ball three years later. The spectacular mansion, designed as a family compound of sorts that most of the family never actually lived in, was replaced by a stately apartment building.

[First and second images: NYPL; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY; fifth image: Google Arts and Culture; sixth image: NYPL]

Capturing the magic of rainy nights in New York City

September 26, 2022

Hard rainy days in New York City can bring on a sense of melancholy—the grayness, the streets relatively empty of people, the steady pounding against windows.

But rain at night can hit the senses differently. Skies glow and obscure the skyline, and pavement slick with water almost twinkles under the lights of the city. There’s a painterly magic to it (if you’re not wrestling with an umbrella or trying to catch a cab, that is).

Few artists have captured this magic of a rainy New York night like Charles Hoffbauer. Born in France in 1875, Hoffbauer came to Gotham in the early 1900s, and with his Impressionist style painted many nocturnes of Manhattan under the spell of the rain.

These three Hoffbauer paintings are new discoveries for me. The exact date of each isn’t clear, but with both automobiles and horse-pulled carriages on the streets, I’d say the 1920s.

What part of New York is Hoffbauer showing us? Street signs and marquees are obscured, so it’s hard to know for sure. My guess is the theater district centered around Times Square.

The Feast of San Gennaro festival, painted by a Little Italy artist

September 19, 2022

Born in 1914 in the Bronx and raised in Greenwich Village’s Little Italy, Ralph Fasanella became a union organizer, a gas station owner, and a self-taught painter of colorful, carnival-like panoramas depicting New York City at work and at play.

“San Gennaro,” is his 1976 take on the annual festival held every September on Mulberry Street since 1926. (The festival is going on in New York right now, through September 26.)

Fasanella’s work is a folk art-inspired, social realist vision of the crowds, vendors, food, games, and patron saint of Naples himself in the center of the canvas, surrounded by Little Italy’s tenements and the tenement dwellers who inhabit them. It’s also currently up for auction; 1stdibs has the info.


A squatter’s shanty and the creeping 20th century city around it

August 26, 2022

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Impressionist Childe Hassam painted rich, atmospheric scenes of New York City life by glorious daylight and the enchanting glow of nighttime.

This undated image of a Manhattan shanty reveals Hassam’s signature command of light and shadow. But it’s something of a departure from his typical streetscape-inspired subject matter.

Where is this shanty? It could be almost anywhere in Manhattan, say above 23rd Street. New Yorkers without means built similar shacks in the 19th century, often without regard for the street grid because actual streets had yet to be laid out. Even into the Gilded Age, goats and chickens were not unusual sights outside these ramshackle houses. It likely met the wrecking ball not long after Hassam immortalized it.