Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

This little witch sends her Halloween greetings

October 28, 2016

She doesn’t seem very scary, and even the black cat looks like a softie. And wishing jolly good fortune?


This early 20th century postcard doesn’t reflect the ghosts-and-goblins Halloween sensibility we’re used to today. No tricks, no treats, no costume, no spells.

But the church steeples make me think this little witch is flying her broom over Brooklyn’s starry skies (the city of churches, you know), making this an appropriate image for anyone ready to enjoy an urban Halloween.

[NYPL Digital Collection]

Haunting emptiness of the city’s lone tenements

October 17, 2016

The tenement is a New York invention—typically a six-story residence shoddily constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries to capitalize on a surge in population and the need for cheap yet affordable housing. (Below, 10th Avenue and 57th Street)


These “nurseries of pauperism and crime,” as reformer Jacob Riis deemed them in 1890, housed three-quarters of New York’s population in the late 1800s.


Tenements (like the one above at University Place and 13th Street) then were “packed like herrings with human beings,” wrote the city board of health in an 1873 report.


For decades, rows and rows of them filled entire blocks. Yet these days, with developers knocking down old buildings and putting up luxury apartments and offices, there seems to be an uptick in single tenements sticking out of the cityscape with nothing on either side. (Above, Tenth Avenue and 30th Street)


These tenements are ghostly remnants that look eerily out of place and abandoned, even when window curtains and lights make it clear that tenants live there. (West Street, above)

lonetenementbellowsThere’s something haunting about a tenement standing alone. Painter George Bellows realized this.

His 1909 “Lone Tenement” (at left) shows a deserted brick walkup in the shadows under the then-new Queensboro Bridge, a representation of the displaced, cast-off men warming themselves by a fire nearby.

lonetenementgrabachAnother social realist painter of the early 20th century, John R. Grabach, was also touched by the lone tenement.

His 1929 work, “The Lone House,” is a portrait of abandonment—of a tenement and people.

Some of today’s lone tenements might be next in line for the wrecking ball. Others stay up perhaps because their owners refuse to sell to developers.


TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverAnd others await development to creep in and surround them—like this tenement on East 14th Street, which stood unmoored and alone for a few years and is now encased on either side by the concrete shell of a future apartment building.

Check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, for more on the history of the New York tenement.

New York inspired this 1930s masterpiece mural

October 17, 2016

Biographies of painter Thomas Hart Benton usually describe him as a Regionalist, an art-world misfit who eschewed the Abstract style of the 1920s and 1930s and painted images of everyday life in the American heartland.


But Benton did live in New York in the teens and 1920s, and he drew partly on his experiences in the city when he created his 1931 mural masterpiece, “America Today.”


Asked by the New School to paint a mural for the boardroom of the college’s new building at 66 West 12th Street, Hart produced a 10-panel monument to American life—depicting the rise of industrialization and technology as well as the harvesting of cotton and wheat, along with allusions to societal inequality and hardship.


[Above, Madison Square Park by Thomas Hart Benton (1924), not part of the mural]

Two panels in particular were inspired by New York. “City Activities with Subway” (top image) shows the energetic street life at the time: burlesque shows, sidewalk preachers, tabloid newspapers, and subway riders looking in every direction except at one another.

bentonportrait1935“City Activities With Dance Hall” (second image) captures the rush of big business, going to the theater, drinking at a bar (Prohibition was still in effect), and letting loose by dancing.

In a 2014 Smithsonian article about “America Today,” Paul Theroux quoted Benton. “’Every detail of every picture is a thing I myself have seen and known. Every head is a real person drawn from life.’”

Taken down by the New School (who reportedly paid Benton in tempura paint, not money) in the 1980s, Benton’s masterpiece moved to the lobby of 1290 Sixth Avenue. It’s now part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[Above: Thomas Hart Benton, 1935]

New York’s painter of “cheery street urchins”

October 10, 2016

When John George Brown immigrated from England to New York in 1853, he was a struggling portrait painter making a living as a glass cutter.

[“The Gang,” 1894]


Brown made his way to Brooklyn, where he was hired by the Flint Glass Company on Broadway.

With money from his day job, he signed on for night classes at the Graham Art School (a precursor of the Brooklyn Museum on Washington Street) and Manhattan’s National Academy of Design.

[“Delivery Boy,” 1863]


He impressed one of Flint’s owners with his talent, and after marrying the owner’s daughter and securing his father-in-law’s financial backing (as well as support from a few art dealers), he set up a studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building in Greenwich Village and began painting street kids.

[“Bootblack,” 1866]


This was the second half of the 19th century, and in the rapidly growing cities of Brooklyn and New York, these “street Arabs,” as they were sometimes known, weren’t hard to find.

The Children’s Aid Society, formed in 1853, estimated that about 3,000 kids lived on city streets, scratching a living as newsboys, bootblacks, vendors, and criminals.

[“The Flower Girl,” 1887]


As the urban population exploded in the Gilded Age, so did the population of orphans, half-orphans, and runaways, their numbers estimated in the tens of thousands.

This was a societal problem that certainly didn’t go unnoticed, with benevolence organizations building homes for working kids and successfully urging legislators to pass mandatory school and child labor laws.

[“Extra!” 1889]


What distinguishes Brown’s depictions of street kids is the rosy, romanticized glow he gave his subjects, which was so at odds with the harsh lives homeless children led.

[“The Sidewalk Dance,” 1894]


And despite the work of social reformers such as Henry Loring Brace (founder of the Children’s Aid Society) and Jacob Riis, who documented street kids in How the Other Half Lives in 1890, Brown’s “cheery street urchins,” as one biographer put it, were a big hit with the public.

brownselfportrait1908His name may not be well-known to art patrons and sellers today.

Yet his paintings and lithographs—including scenes of the city’s adults at work and play, from grimy longshoreman taking a midday break to more refined people enjoying the sport of “curling” on a lake in Central Park—hang in impressive museums like the Corcoran Gallery and are still in demand.

An engraving of “The Sidewalk Dance” just sold at auction for $468.

[Left: “Self-Portrait,” 1908]

Edgar Allan Poe’s haunted walks on High Bridge

October 7, 2016

Like so many other New Yorkers, Edgar Allan Poe was known to take long, contemplative walks.


After he moved from a farmhouse in today’s Upper West Side to a wooden cottage in rural Fordham (below), Poe regularly journeyed across the High Bridge, opened in 1848, two and a half miles from his home.

A graceful feat of engineering, the High Bridge carried fresh Croton Aqueduct water from Westchester to Manhattan.

poecottage“During Mr. Poe’s residence at Fordham a walk to the High Bridge was one of his favorite and habitual recreations,” wrote Sarah Helen Whitman, a literary contemporary who Poe tried and failed to court.

The dramatic views of the Harlem River and the rocky shores must have suited Poe’s mood. After all, his life was in free fall.

His wife, Virginia Clemm, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1847. And though he would write some of his best work during his Fordham years, including “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee,” Poe’s literary career was falling apart.

He was broke, he drank a lot, and his behavior was becoming increasingly erratic.

poehighbridge1900nypl“In the last melancholy years of his life—’the lonesome latter years’—Poe was accustomed to walk there at all times of the day and night; often pacing the then solitary pathways for hours without meeting a human being,” continued Whitman.

The 1930 lithograph by B.J. Rosenmeyer (top) captures Poe crossing the High Bridge.

There’s some contention that the dates and image don’t line up. The lithograph depicts a winter scene; Poe wasn’t in New York much during the winter of 1848-1849, the last winter of his life, according to this High Bridge website.

poehighbridgetodayAlso, the pedestrian span of the bridge hadn’t been built until 1864, the site explains. (Above, High Bridge around 1900.)

On the other hand, another witness decades after Poe’s death gave a colorful and distressing chronicle of his High Bridge walks.

“With a faded old army cloak over his shoulders, a relic of his old West Point life, he was a familiar object to the staid villagers as he went loitering by through the lanes and over the fields,” a former Fordham acquaintance of Poe’s told a New York Times writer in 1885.

“His favorite route was the aqueduct road, leading over the High Bridge.”

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: NYPL]

Electric lights in the rain at Columbus Circle

October 3, 2016

Doesn’t New York become more magical in the rain? William A. Frazer, who took this enchanting photo titled “Wet Night, Columbus Circle” at the dawn of the 20th century, would likely agree.


His image reveals the rainy nighttime city and marble Columbus monument cast in the soft glow of artificial light. When the photo was shot in 1900, electric streetlights extended up Broadway from 14th Street to the newly named Columbus Circle at 59th Street.

More images of the growing city bathed in electric light can be found in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, on sale now.

[Photo: MOMA]

The kindest landlord Greenwich Village ever had

September 30, 2016

strunskywestthirdsignNew York has never been known for its patient and understanding landlords. But the back pages of the city’s history are filled with exceptions, like Albert “Papa” Strunsky.

Strunsky (below) was a portly Russian immigrant who got his start in Greenwich Village selling wine to restaurants before leasing several walkup buildings between MacDougal and Sullivan Streets south of Washington Square.

albertstrunskygvny-comIn the years following World War I, as Bohemia flourished in the Village, Strunsky rented flats to many struggling artists and writers.

And when they had trouble coughing up the rent, he didn’t send an eviction notice.

“Strunsky was a character,” recalled one former tenant, Henrietta Stoner, in an undated interview with the Greenwich Village Gazette.

“But he was the most wonderful man in the world. If you could not pay the rent, he’d settle for a radio, for a painting if you were an artist and he liked your work.”

A reporter writing about the Village in a New York newspaper in 1936 had this to say about broke Villagers’ favorite landlord: “A rent collecting scene with Papa Strunsky is a memorable event. . . . First there is the initial ultimatum: ‘Either pay or get out.'”


“Then, the letdown when Papa asks, ‘Have you finished that book or that painting yet?’ Be the answer negative, it will not be necessary to pack up. Papa Strunsky will stake his tenant to another month—and frequently, to another year.”

Strunsky wasn’t just a Village landlord—he lived in the neighborhood himself at 44 Washington Square South near Sullivan Street (the block above, in 1922; West Third Street west of Sullivan Street today, below).


His wife ran a pay-as-you-wish cafeteria on West Eighth Street, and his children traveled in artistic circles; one married Ira Gershwin.

But for all his generosity, perhaps his heart was a little too big. Because Strunsky wasn’t able to collect all of the money he was owed, the company he leased his buildings from took them back, leaving him struggling.

He died at 75 in 1942, apparently broke but beloved by former tenants.

strunskynytobituary1942Of his landlord days, the New York Times wrote in his obituary: “Mr. Strunsky shunned reporters in those days, for as he explained, each public mention of his name and charities brought fresh waves of hopeful squatters to his door.”

“But ‘they,’ as he described the artists, and ‘they,’ living rent free until his patience was exhausted, would dedicate their pictures, symphonies, and statues to him but pay no money.”

[Second image:; third photo: NYPL Digital Gallery; fifth image: New York Times]

A stunning family portrait of Gilded Age privilege

September 26, 2016

This is Cornelia Ward Hall, wife of businessman John H. Hall, and their four children, in a rich and magnificent 1880 portrait by Italian painter Michele Gordigiani.


Who was Hall? A very well-off wife and mother living in New York at the height of the Gilded Age—one who apparently kept a lower profile than some of her peers.

The portrait doesn’t tell us much about Hall and her family specifically. But in the painting, they represent the era’s twin preoccupations with material wealth and family values: a mother and wife outfitted in the finest clothes and jewels surrounded by her beautiful children.

Think of her as a domestic goddess of the late 19th century, who ruled the home and nurtured her children, as the painting makes clear.

[“Mrs. Cornelia Ward Hall and Her Children” is part of the collection at the Museum of the City of New York; 61.155.1]

Subway riding in the 1940s with Stanley Kubrick

September 12, 2016

In March 1947, the popular national biweekly publication Look published a stark, six-page photo feature called “Life and Love on the New York Subway.”


The photographer behind the powerful and poetic images? Future film director Stanley Kubrick—at the time a teenage correspondent for the magazine who sold photo features on everything from city dogs to shoeshine boys to the life of a New York showgirl.


Like street photographers before him (think Walker Evans during the Depression), Kubrick decided to take his camera underground and shoot the people riding the trains.

He hoped to reveal the emotion and humanity behind the typical subway rider’s facade of disinterest and indifference, to capture romance, humor, vulnerability, and loneliness.


He explained how he did it in an interview with Camera magazine a year later.

“Kubrick rode the lines for two weeks,” the article stated. “Most of his traveling to and fro was done at night, as more unusual activities were likely to take place then.”


Kubrick used no flash, and apparently his subjects didn’t know they were caught on film.

“These are truly unusual studies and expressions of life in a subway. Running true to form, drunks, love makers, sleepers, wanderers, and lonesome people were caught, wholly unaware of the fact that they were being photographed.”


His images are striking in their ordinariness, not unlike the faces of subway riders under the streets of New York City today. Train interiors and platforms haven’t changed either.


But taking pictures on a train in the 1940s posed challenges.

“Regardless of what he saw he couldn’t shoot until the car stopped in a station because of the motion and vibration of the moving train. Kubrick finally did get his pictures, and no one but a subway guard seemed to mind.”


The kicker of the Camera story foretells the future. “Stan is also very serious about cinematography, and is about to start filming a sound production written and financed by himself, and several friends.”


These photos and hundreds more from Kubrick can be viewed via Museum of the City of New York digital collections.

[All photos from the MCNY. Accession numbers: photo 1: X2011.4.11107.61A; photo 2: X2011.411107.55C; photo 3: X2011.4.11107.45F; photo 4: X2011.4.10292.63D; photo 5: C2011.4.10292.100C; photo 6: X2011.4.11107.125; photo 7: X2011.4.11107.92E; photo 8: X2011.4.11107.49F]

Walking along Madison Square after the rain

September 9, 2016

I don’t know the name of this painting, but the artist, Paul Cornoyer, often depicted Madison Square and other well-traveled hubs of the Gilded Age city, especially after a rainstorm.


Doesn’t look like Madison Square? It must be the arch and colonnades that are throwing things off. It’s all part of the Dewey Arch, erected at Fifth Avenue and about 25th Street for a parade honoring Admiral George Dewey, victorious in the Philippines in 1898.

The triumphant arch only stood for a year. After the 1899 parade, money was supposed to be raised to make the arch permanent—like Washington Square’s new marble arch. Instead, it was bulldozed in 1900.