Archive for the ‘art’ Category

A Manhattan train station had a potbelly stove

January 13, 2020

Imagine how much better your winter workday commute would be if your station had a potbelly stove—which you could wait beside in toasty comfort?

Train riders at this West Side station had that luxury, as seen in one of the wonderful photos taken by Berenice Abbott in the 1930s for her legendary book, Berenice Abbott’s New York.

The potbelly stove photo was captured on February 6, 1936. We know the exact date—but which train station is this?

Over the years, it’s been misidentified as a subway station. But it’s actually an above ground El station, per Abbott’s photo caption: “”El station Interior, Sixth and Ninth Avenue lines, downtown side, 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue, Manhattan.”

The skyscraper tree grates at Rockefeller Center

January 13, 2020

Look up to the sky at 50th Street and Fifth Avenue, and you’ll see the iconic skyscraper 30 Rock—the sleek, 66-story beauty at the center of the Art Deco complex of towers developed by the Rockefeller family in the 1930s.

Now look down at the sidewalk you’re standing on. Embedded into the concrete are metal tree grates with a similar Art Deco skyscraper design.

A lovely touch, right? The interesting thing is that the skyscrapers in the grates don’t exactly look like the gleaming buildings at Rockefeller Plaza.

With their stacked shape and tall antennas, these mini-scrapers actually resemble the Empire State Building, standing proud since 1931 just 16 blocks south.

Perhaps the skyscraper grates are less of an homage to Rockefeller Plaza as a mini-city of silver towers and more of a nod to the skyscraper era itself—when the Empire State Building, 30 Rock, the Chrysler Building, and others defined the New York City skyline and became emblems of optimism during the bleak years of the Depression-era city.

[Rockefeller Center, 1930: MCNY]

How Edward Hopper sees the Manhattan Bridge

December 30, 2019

Edward Hopper has painted the Manhattan Bridge before; “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” from 1928, depicts this least-celebrated East River crossing with “eerie stillness” and a sense of solitude and isolation.

Two years earlier, he captured something similar in “Manhattan Bridge” (owned by the Whitney Museum). It’s a scene free of human beings and any clue about the time of day or season of the year.

The Manhattan Bridge span (only 17 years old in 1926) is flowy and graceful. The low-rise red building at the water’s edge is literally on its last legs; it leans away from the bridge like it’s afraid of it.

The scene seems so passive, it’s almost as if time is standing still…but time is rushing forth. The old city of wood shacks is bowing down to the modern metropolis of steel bridges that are supposed to connect people in an urban landscape that actually isolates.

Knitting for soldiers in an upper Manhattan park

December 16, 2019

When Ashcan painter George Luks completed this painting of a group of women knitting in Highbridge Park on the Manhattan side of the Harlem River, he gave it the one-word title “Knitting.”

But it was 1918, and amid the war effort, “critics naturally assumed that the scarves and gloves were being made for soldiers,” notes terraamericanart.org. Hence the amended title, “Knitting for the Soldiers.”

It’s an unusual piece of art from Luks, who tended to focus on the gritty realism of the city’s poorer pockets. A move from Greenwich Village to Upper Manhattan, however, changed his focus.

“While taking advantage of the expressive possibilities of paint, Luks suggested details of costume and gesture with a sharp reporter’s eye: the women’s garments are simple, yet fashionable enough to mark them as comfortably middle-class. Varying in age from young to elderly, they work in silent camaraderie,” states terraamericanart.org.

Portraits of family bliss in 19th century New York

December 16, 2019

We’re in the season of holiday cards, particularly family photo cards. You might have a pile of them right now—family members, especially kids, appearing joyful in the warm embrace of domestic life.

Well-heeled New York families in the 19th century couldn’t curate their Instagram account to find the right picture representing family tranquility. And while photography studios abounded in the city after the Civil War, photo portraits were posed and formal.

So how did families convey their domestic and material comforts? By commissioning a painted portrait, as the family of Robert Gordon did above, in the parlor of his home at 7 West 33rd Street in 1866.

“The Contest for the Bouquet: The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining-Room,” was painted by Seymour Joseph Guy. Guy, a British painter, went on to do many more family portraits, called “conversation pieces” because of the narrative elements that help tell the story of the family.

In this case, Mrs. Gordon is clearly the center of domestic life in the household, sending her children off to school after breakfast (likely made by a cook) in a sumptuous Renaissance Revival dining room.

In the second portrait, the narrative elements hint at the larger world outside the domestic sphere. “Christmas-Time, the Blodgett Family,” painted by Eastman Johnson in 1864, shows a wealthy family’s restrained Christmas decor (see the wreath and tree in the background) in the parlor of their home at 27 West 25th Street.

“Depicted during the Civil War, at a time of urban upheaval, the serene interior decorated for Christmas, embodies ‘the best sentiment of home,’ as a critic observed in 1865,” states the description of the painting at Metmuseum.org, the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Only the toy of a caricatured black male dancer held by the young boy hints at pressing issues of racial strife and emancipation.”

The third painting takes us to the New York of 1880, where a wife and mother posed with her four lovely children in a luxurious dressing gown.

The woman in the portrait is Cornelia Ward Hall, wife of businessman John H. Hall; the stunning portrait is by Italian painter Michele Gordigiani. I’m not sure where the Hall family home was, but the parlor decor reflects the fashionable Asian-inspired aesthetic of the era.

Eastman Johnson was also the artist behind the fourth family portrait, depicting three generations of the Hatch family in their home at 49 Park Avenue in 1870-1871. Alfrederick Smith Hatch was a Wall Street broker in the firm of Fisk and Hatch, which helped finance railroads. (He’s the man seated on the right at a desk.)

Considering that Hatch is posing not only with his immediate family but with his father and his mother-in-law, this family portrait gives us a man who wasn’t just abundant in terms of his finances, but also abundant in family members. (I count 11 kids in that parlor!)

The magical “blue hour” in rainy 1940 New York

December 9, 2019

It’s the blue hour in “Rainy Day, New York,” a 1940 painting by Leon Dolice—a Vienna-born artist who came to Manhattan in the 1920s.

The sun has sunk below the horizon, and sidewalks and buildings are cast in a blueish glow, illuminated by streetlamps, car headlights, and the reflection of rain-slicked streets.

I’m not sure where Dolice painted this moody, magical scene. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. It’s the feel of the city at twilight he’s captured here—an enchanting, slightly eerie few moments whether in the middle of Times Square or on a lonely side street.

Inside a New York Depression-era “relief station”

December 2, 2019

Saul Kovner was a Russia-born artist best known for his poetic glimpses of 1930s New York, from East Side tenement backyards to kids playing in a snow-blanketed Tompkins Square Park.

But one painter Kovner completed in 1939 tells a story about what it was like to be poor in Depression-era New York.

“Relief Station” depicts a group of mostly strangers sitting on wood benches in a drab facility, facing forward as if they’re waiting for their names to be called.

Where is this group? In a place New York new longer has, a relief station—where jobless people with no money to buy food or pay rent sought what was known as “home relief.”

Relief stations weren’t new. But with nearly one third of the city out of work at the height of the Depression and a government more willing to distribute relief to people in need, dozens of home relief bureau stations popped up across the city.

Kovner’s painting was part of a series on relief stations; another two are below. The second image comes from painter Louis Ribak, who captured an emotional scene a woman pleading her case to an official behind a desk, and a crowd waiting their turn.

Newspapers also published glimpses of what it was like in a relief station, with readers reporting distressing scenes of people pleading their cases or being treated rudely by an administrator.

Relief stations also became targets for activists—who petitioned (or rioted, depending on the report) for more help for New Yorkers to pay their bills. On at least one occasion, a South Williamsburg relief station was stormed by a hundred people who demanded that relief be given out a lot more quickly.

While we still have home relief—just under a different name—these portraits remind us of what the term used to mean, and how relief stations were part of the fabric of the 1930s city.

A moment in McSorley’s by an Impressionist artist

November 25, 2019

McSorley’s Old Ale House, on East Seventh Street since 1854 (or thereabouts), has long been a magnet for artists.

Perhaps the most famous was John Sloan—who painted various scenes of both dark moods and high spirits inside this former working-class Irish saloon in today’s East Village from 1912 to 1928.

But in 1916, another celebrated New York painter with a style very different from Sloan’s visited McSorley’s.

Childe Hassam had already made his name as an Impressionist painter in the 1890s. Hassam focused on what he described as “humanity in motion,” painting iridescent glimpses of city life centered along the stretch of Fifth Avenue outside his 17th Street studio between Union and Madison Squares.

Instead of a lush scene of light and air, Hassam’s “McSorley’s Bar” gives us a rich interior glimpse of the saloon with a well-dressed man holding a bottle (or about to grab one) at a wood bar—curiously alone and not necessarily in motion.

Crossing paths on 59th Street on a blustery day

November 18, 2019

Helen Farr Sloan was the former student—and then second wife—of Ashcan artist John Sloan. When her husband died in 1951, she remained devoted to promoting his art and achievements.

But Farr Sloan was an exceptional artist in her own right. Born in New York, she became a printmaker and painter who had something to say about the 20th century city.

“59th Street, New York City,” from 1930, takes us to a bustling Manhattan block on a blustery day. Hats are blown off, snow is shoveled, a woman approaches a taxi, people in drab coats shielding themselves with umbrellas go on their way.

The scene could be a moment of human interaction in any Depression-era town. Yet the colorful lights and tall buildings in the distance evoke a modern and detached metropolis where it’s unlikely any of these mostly faceless figures will ever cross paths again.

[The painting belongs to the Delaware Art Museum, which has a deep collection of works by John Sloan and Helen Farr Sloan]

What tenement clotheslines said about New York

November 18, 2019

Rich New Yorkers in the 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t have to bother with clotheslines.

They had in-house staff laundresses who boiled their dirty clothes in machines, then set them to dry in sunlit or steam-heated rooms on the top floor of a townhouse or mansion.

Everyone else—especially tenement dwellers, who made up two-thirds of the city population in 1900—strung their garments and linens out on pulley-powered clotheslines.

For hours, shirts, pants, underwear, and bedsheets swayed loose in the breeze, a family’s intimate items exposed to the elements and to anyone who cared to see.

(As opposed to today, when most of us toss our dirty laundry in a machine, or haul it in a bag for the corner laundry to handle.)

The clotheslines were probably heaviest on Mondays, which traditionally was laundry day.

Washing clothes was hard enough in the days before apartments had hot running water. Instead, water had to be carried upstairs from a street or backyard pump and then boiled on the stove.

After smells and stains were scrubbed out with the hot water and soap, it was time to hang them up on the clothesline—a more arduous task than washing.

How laborious drying was depended a lot on what floor you occupied. If you lived on a high floor, you didn’t have to worry as much about the clothes dye dripping down from someone else’s laundry and ruining yours, or dust and dirt soiling your clothes all over again.

And if your window faced the back, you were in luck, because clotheslines hung in the back of the building like a web crisscrossing a courtyard or alley.

If you didn’t have a clothesline you could reach from your window, you had the option of drying your clothing on the roof. That required climbing more stairs and then keeping an eye on your garments, as clothes were often stolen, explained Tyler Anbinder in his 2001 book, Five Points.

While tenement clotheslines represented the domestic side of life and the desire for cleanliness in a notoriously filthy city, clotheslines served another surprising practical purpose: They could break the fall when a person accidentally tumbled out the window.

Newspapers are filled with these stories. “Her Life Saved by Clotheslines,” reads a front-page headline from the Evening World in May 1903.

“Margaret Igoe, 43 years old, fell from the fire escape on the fifth-floor of the tenement at No. 296 First Avenue this afternoon and was only slightly injured….That she was not killed is due to the fact that she fell through a network of clotheslines, which broke the force of her descent.”

Clotheslines also had an aesthetic appeal, especially after the turn of the century. Artists focused on them in paintings and photographs, using them as icons of life in the slums.

Maybe the order of the lines juxtaposed against the disarray of laundry inspired artists as well. Or perhaps the clothes hanging on laundry lines represented intimacy in an increasingly impersonal modern city.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo, Berenice Abbott, 1936: “Court of First Model Tenement House in New York, 72nd Street and First Avenue, Manhattan”; third image: tenement on Mulberry Street, NYPL, 1873; fourth image: laundry over backyard outhouses, NYPL; fifth image: ad, MCNY, F2012.99.509, 1865-1915; sixth image: 1935, Arnold Eagle, MCNY, 43.131.11.264; seventh image: tenements under Tudor City, Samuel Gottscho, 1930-1933, MCNY 39.20.24]