Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1930s’

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.

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.

Going back in time to 1930s Columbus Circle and Central Park

October 11, 2021

Whatever you think of Christopher Columbus, you have to admit the circle named for him at 59th Street looks pretty spectacular in this 1934 postcard.

It’s a rich and detailed view looking toward Central Park South and into the park itself. There’s the Columbus monument, the Maine monument at the entrance to the park (no pedicab traffic, wow!), the Sherry Netherland hotel all the way on Fifth, and a streetcar snaking its way to Broadway.

[postcard: postcardmuseum]

A painter in Astoria captures what he saw across the East River

July 26, 2021

When painters depict the East River, it’s usually from the Manhattan side: a steel bridge, choppy waters, and a Brooklyn or Queens waterfront either thick with factories or quaint and almost rural.

But when Richard Hayley Lever decided to paint the river in 1936, he did it from Astoria. What he captured in “Queensboro Bridge and New York From Astoria” (above) is a scene that on one hand comes across as quiet and serene—is that a horse and carriage in the foreground?—but with the business and industry of Manhattan looming behind.

This Impressionist artist gives us a view at about 60th Street; the bridge crosses at 59th, of course, and that gas tank sat at the foot of 61st Street through much of the 20th century.

Is the horse and carriage actually on Roosevelt Island or even still in Queens? Often these details can be found on museum and art or auction websites. Lever came to New York City from Australia in 1911 and taught at the Art Students League from 1919-1931, establishing a studio in the 1930s and teaching at other schools. But aside from this, I couldn’t find many details about his work.

He did paint the Queensboro Bridge and East River again though, as well as the High Bridge over the Harlem River and West 66th Street, among other New York locations. The title and date of the second image of the two ships is unknown right now. “Ship Under Brooklyn Bridge” (third image) is from 1958, the year he died after a life of artistic recognition and then financial difficulties, per this biography from Questroyal.

The seedier side of Broadway by a 1930s painter

October 19, 2020

Cigarette ads, a burlesque house, a struggling theater, a flea circus and freak show (likely Hubert’s Museum): If you visited 42nd Street on the west side of Broadway at Times Square in 1932, this is what you’d find.

“42nd Street West of Broadway” was painted that year by Edmund Yaghjian, an Armenian immigrant who depicted daytime scenes of the 1930s cityscape and nocturnes that showcased the Depression-era Art Deco feel of the New York at the time.

After studying and then teaching at the Art Students League, Yaghjian took a teaching job in 1942 that forced him to leave Gotham for South Carolina, according to The Johnson Collection in Spartanburg, SC.

His New York City, the city of almost 90 years ago, is on view online at Artnet.

An elevated train ride through the nocturnal city

September 28, 2020

Painter Jack Lubin, born in New York in 1907, might be best known as an abstract-style muralist.

Two murals this WPA artist painted in a garment district building were removed by developers in 2011, and a mural he completed in 1956 in the Statler Hotel in Dallas was rediscovered and restored in 2012.

In 1938, he painted this magical nocturne of an elevated train in a noir-ish nighttime New York, capturing the yellow light from inside the train and apartment windows, as well as the blue glow of the sky in a Manhattan that even on a moonless night never goes black.

The painting looks like a dream—what I wouldn’t do to travel back into that scene and experience the screeching and rumbling of an elevated train gliding three stories over the sleepy city!

[Painting: Smithsonian American Art Museum]

A printmaker’s New York in shadows and light

February 24, 2020

Martin Lewis’ masterful etchings—which offer shadowy, poetic glimpses of 1920s and 1930s New York—have been featured on Ephemeral New York many times before.

[“Dock Workers Under the Brooklyn Bridge,” 1916-1918]

But just when I’d given up on finding new examples of the way he illuminates the darker (and sometimes darkly humorous) edges of the cityscape, I came across the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s digitized collection—which includes a trove of Lewis’ etchings.

[“Tree Manhattan,” no date]

His street scenes demonstrate a deep understanding of the city’s many moods. Yet Lewis wasn’t a New York native. Born in Australia, he made his way to Manhattan in the early 1900s.

[“Derricks,” 1927]

By 1905, he was living on West 14th Street and making a living as a commercial artist, according to a biography on The Old Print Shop website, where his work is featured.

[“The Great Shadow,” 1925]

His first surviving etchings date to the mid-1910s. But his compositions from the 1920s and 1930s are the ones that made his name, giving him access to galleries and shows.

[“Subway Steps,” 1930]

These are finely detailed illustrations—mostly nocturnes—of solitary figures or crowds. People are coming and going along sidewalks and subway staircases, on their way home from a night out or heading to work in the morning.

[“Break in the Thunderstorm,” 1930]

Some are on rooftops or in alleys, others portray people working the night shift as the rest of the city is safe in well-lit apartments. Laundry hangs on lines; tenements are dwarfed by the glowing interiors of towering buildings.

Lewis often featured kids playing and young women dressed for a night on the town. He didn’t always indicate the exact setting of his street scenes, but he sometimes put a neighborhood or bridge in the title. (The locations of the work in this post, unfortunately, are shrouded in mystery.)

It’s hard to explain why Lewis’ surviving prints still resonate today. A New York Times review of his work from 1929 suggests that he captures the contradictions inherent in New York—the shifting light and darkness, the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness.

Interestingly, the faces of his figures are often hidden from view. But based on their body language and the surrounding street scene, we can imagine what they’re thinking and feeling.

[All images: Smithsonian American Art Museum]

The most dazzling luxury apartment ads of 1935

February 24, 2020

It’s 1935, and you’re a New Yorker who needs a new apartment. The Depression is still raging, but your fortunes are on the upswing, and you’re thinking luxurious digs in Midtown or on the East or West Sides near Central Park.

Looks like you’ve got lots of options. The July 27, 1935 New Yorker (selling for 15 cents!) contains many classy apartment ads toward the back pages. These are the most amenity-packed ads for buildings that still exist and are still quite luxe.

The “most distinguished address in America” is quite a claim, but One Fifth Avenue beside the Washington Arch at Washington Square Park is still a beautiful building. This Art Deco gem was built in 1927.

I’m not sure the Parc Vendome of today still has a swimming pool. But it is an impressive fortress of a building fronting West 57th Street. (And the phone exchange: Circle for Columbus Circle?)

The El Dorado continues to shine on Central Park West, its two towers as impressive as other iconic West Side buildings like the Dakota and the San Remo.

Ten Park Avenue at 34th Street might not sound spectacular. But in the 1930s, this building maintained the hotel-style feel of many early apartment houses. Room service is available, and this one-bedroom pad is only $1300…per year, I believe.

“The trend is toward the river,” proclaims this ad for Southgate, a “fashionable colony” of five Bing & Bing buildings on East 51st and East 52nd Street designed by Emery Roth.

“Set apart from the rest of the town” for “smart New Yorkers”…I’m sold!

Taking a sunbath on a Depression-era city roof

July 8, 2019

Martin Lewis was a 20th century painter and printmaker better known for his mesmerizing etchings of New York’s darkened corners and shadowy streets, illuminated by lamp light and store signs.

But some of his urban landscapes bring people and buildings out of the shadows and into daylight—like in this image.

Here, two women sit on a tenement rooftop, one enjoying the timeless ritual of catching some sun on a New York roof.

Disapproving mother and young, attractive daughter? Lewis completed this etching in 1935. While it might be the Depression, the city before us is inviting and limitless—and it belongs to the daughter.

A city printmaker of “twilight, shadow, mystery”

March 11, 2019

Like other New York City printmakers in the 1930s, Armin Landeck’s etchings and engravings focus on the city’s dark corners and mysterious pockets.

[“Housetops, 14th Street,” 1937]

His work displays the kind of familiarity with the city one would expect from an artist who grew up peering around the early 20th century Manhattan of dimly lit bars, shadowy elevated trains, and hidden tenement roofs.

[“Pop’s Tavern.” 1934]

But he was not a New York City native. Born in Wisconsin in 1904, Landeck arrived in Gotham to study architecture at Columbia University and attend summer classes at the Art Students League on West 57th Street.

[“Manhattan Vista,” 1934]

“By the time of his graduation from Columbia in 1927, he had become interested in printmaking and had bought a used press,” states the website for the National Gallery of Art. When he couldn’t find a job as an architect, he turned to printmaking.

Though he lived in Connecticut, he taught in New York and had a studio on 14th Street. Landeck spent much of his career rendering nocturnes of rooftops, stairwells, street corners, and other “secretive places amid the very public place, Manhattan,” as the New York Times put it in a 1998 article.

[“Manhattan Nocturne,” 1938]

“Like Hopper, Landeck uses the human figure sparely; he was more interested in the surroundings, and his ambience of choice obviously was urban,” stated the Times.

[“Approaching Storm,” 1937]

In a 1980 Times article, Landeck addressed the fact that often the only person in one of his prints is the viewer. “That there are no people is intentional on my part, because I look at New York in terms of theater very often,” he said.

Landeck’s work became more abstract as the 20th century continued, but no less accomplished. Still, his prints from the 1930s and 1940s might best exemplify his style. Armin was “ever the master of twilight, of shadow, and mystery,” as one 2003 book title described him.

[Prints 1, 2, and 4: Smithsonian American Art Museum; Print 3: Artnet; Print 5: Artnet]