Posts Tagged ‘Union Square NYC’

A painter renders Union Square’s sea of humanity

August 22, 2016

Shop girls, down and out men, lone pedestrians on the way to the elevated train—from the 1930s to the 1980s, Isabel Bishop observed these men and women from her Union Square artist’s studio, painting them in soft tones that reveal their humanity and fragility.


Born in 1902 in Cincinnati, Bishop moved to Manhattan at age 16 to attend the New York School of Applied Design for Women. She then took classes at the Art Students League, developing her talents as a printmaker and painter.

Influenced by early Modernists like Robert Henri and old masters such as Rubens, she became associated with the 14th Street School, a group of realist artists that included Reginald Marsh and Raphael Soyer.


Bishop married in 1934 and moved to Riverdale. But she kept her studio first at Nine West 14th Street and then another at 857 Broadway. The Union Square area in those pre- and postwar decades was home to lower-end department stores, offices, and cheap entertainment venues.

And of course, there was the park itself, a gathering place for everyone from soap-box agitators to workers on their lunch hour to derelict men with no where else to go.


The subject matter right outside her studio suited Bishop perfectly.

“It was in New York’s pulsating environment that Bishop combined her admiration for the old masters with a contemporary taste for urban realism,” states the National Museum of Women in the Arts.


“With her discerning eye, she portrayed ordinary people in an extraordinary manner, often monumentalizing her figures within spaces that barely created context or indicated a location.”

“She chose average models from the streets of Manhattan and often rendered them in a state of physical activity—a sharp departure from the idealized, passive nudes of previous traditions.”

[“Fifteenth Street and Sixth Avenue,” 1930]


Bishop focused many of her paintings on women—the otherwise ordinary women who passed through Union Square, coming in and out of offices or catching a train. Neither mothers nor sex symbols, they “exist for themselves,” as one critic put it.

“On the street corner, in the automat, in the subway and on park benches in fine weather, Miss Bishop proved herself a perceptive observer,” wrote the New York Times in her obituary. “For young women in the big city who were as yet unmarked by life, she had a particular feeling.”

[“Fourteenth Street,” 1932]


As time went on, Bishop’s style seemed to become more muted, with figures of women in what looks like perpetual motion—perhaps a comment on the rise of women in American society.

Bishopselfportrait1927Bishop kept her Union Square studio until 1984; she died in 1988. This self-portrait was done in 1927, when she was just 25.

She isn’t as well-known as she should be, but her amber-hued men and women caught in ordinary, fleeting moments speak to the anonymity and motion of urban life in the 20th century.

[Images 1-4; 6:; Image 5 and 7,]

Lincoln’s statue gets little love in Union Square

March 3, 2014

Lincolnstatue1917mcnyAfter his death, president Lincoln was embraced by the public. But his image in bronze wasn’t beloved by critics.

Shortly after Henry Kirke Brown’s bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln was unveiled at the southwest end of Union Square in 1870, one critic loathed it.

“A frightful object has been placed in Union Square,” stated The New York Times in September.

“It is said to be a statue of a man who deserves to be held in lasting remembrance as a true patriot, a sincere, unselfish, noble-hearted chief in times of great trouble and perplexity—Abraham Lincoln. But it does not resemble Mr. Lincoln. The lines which give the face character are not there. . . . “


“The sculptor has tried to atone for this defect by putting plenty of hard lines in the clothes, which are enough to distract anybody who thinks that dress need not of necessity increase the hideousness of man.”

Lincoln2014nyparksThe writer poked fun at the “pantaloons” Lincoln was wearing, as well as his toga.

“It is like the hideous nightmare . . . . How much it costs to make it and put it up, we do not know, but we will gladly receive subscriptions toward the expense of taking it down and sending it off to Chicago, where ‘works of art’ of this kind are highly appreciated.”

Yikes. The public seemed to be okay with this depiction of the martyred president—in those post-Civil War years very much beloved, even by New Yorkers.

But when Union Square underwent a redesign in 1930, and the Lincoln statue moved to its current home in the north-central part of the park (above), workers didn’t treat the statue with about as much respect as the Times did.


Here it is, looking like it was toppled over during an air raid in a hardscrabble, treeless Union Square of the Depression.

[Top photos: MCNY; middle: NYC Department of Parks and Recreation; bottom: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The 19th century “slave market” at Union Square

October 25, 2012

If you were an actor in the 1860s to 1880s, you spent a lot of time in Union Square.

This was the city’s theater district. The Union Square Theatre, Academy of Music (below right), and other spaces attracted big evening crowds.

Photo studios, play publishers, costume shops, and other theater-focused businesses thrived during the day.

Desperate, out-of-work actors congregated here too, in a section of 14th Street deemed the “slave market,” where managers and theater agents went to fill their casts for an upcoming show.

“Until the 1880s, the south side of Union Square on 14th Street was called the Rialto, after the name of the busy commercial district in Venice,” writes Irving Lewis Allen in City in Slang.

“In the 1860s, actors lounged around the base of the great equestrian statue of George Washington, and there they had what they and passersby called the slave market for those seeking employment through the casting offices in the area.”

A New York Times article from 1921 also explains that the south and east sides of Union Square came to be known as “The Slave Mart”:

“An actor out of engagement would stand around waiting, as the saying was, to ‘sign up’ for the next season. As soon as he had ‘signed up’ he would convey the tidings to his associates and then would be seen no more—until the next season.”

The slave market disappeared when the theater district moved uptown . . . and booking agencies took over the task of filling casts. Out-of-work actors, however, are still plentiful in New York City.

The “End of the 14th Street Crosstown Line”

May 7, 2012

In 1936, artist Reginald Marsh, known as a social realist for his depictions of a bustling, sensual, grotesque city, painted this scene of the old clashing with the new on 14th Street.

“Painted during an era of labor unrest in Union Square, ‘End of 14th Street Crosstown Line’ juxtaposes construction workers tearing up old trolley car lines with picketers demonstrating against Ohrbach’s, a store that had refused to allow its workers to unionize,” writes the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which owns the painting.