Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings, circa 1800-1950

by Dr. Charles C. Eldredge


7. Urban America

The promise of America, early envisioned by Jefferson and Crevecoeur in an agrarian, rural society, was redefined in the nation's booming cities and suburbs by the middle of the twentieth century. If well-being had abandoned rural America by that date, if noble tillers of the soil had been eclipsed by new legions of production-line workers and a burgeoning middle class, the transition was neither sudden nor, to many urban denizens, unwelcome. One hundred years earlier, a sense of that trajectory, already under way, had infused the rural idylls of Jerome Thompson and his contemporaries with their distinctive notes of nostalgia.

By the start of the twentieth century, marketing -- and daily life -- in urban America was very different from that in its rural precincts. And the excitement of the crowded cities captured the attention of artists such as George Luks and his fellow members of what came later to be known as the "Ashcan school" due to their proclivity for urban motifs. In Luks's Allen Street, circa 1905 (cat. no. 42), the marketing takes place on the crowded street in New York's lower East Side immigrant neighborhoods. Piles of goods -- colorful textiles, furniture, brassware, and framed pictures -- attract the attention of female shoppers. In the second-story windows of a dressmaker's shop, slender mannequins draped in colorful fabrics contrast with the bulky and largely monochromatic immigrant women on the street, suggesting different traditions in dress and different economic status.

Also contrasting with Luks's women are those who provide the subject for Kenneth Hayes Miller's Shoppers (Weatherspoon Art Gallery, Greensboro) and for a large canvas by Luks's fellow Ashcan painter, William Glackens (cat. no. 24). Their shoppers make their purchases uptown and indoors, in the expensive emporia that catered to a new class of affluent urban dwellers with discretionary income and leisure time. Although Miller and Glackens featured American women shopping, the lure of the marketplace was not confined by gender or geography. For example, the narrator of H. G. Wells's novel Tono-Bungay, which dates from the same period as the Glackens painting, found himself and his family part of "that multitude of economically ascendant people who are learning how to spend money." His British uncle excelled at the pastime, becoming "a furious spender; he shopped with large unexpected purchases, he shopped like a mind seeking expression, he shopped to astonish and dismay; shopped crescendo, shopped fortissimo, con molto espressione."[69]

The central figure in Glackens's The Shoppers is the artist's wife, Edith Dimock Glackens, an artist in her own right and the wealthy daughter of a Hartford tycoon; at the right is Mrs. Everett Shinn, wife of another Ashcan painter. Their fashionable garb, and the prominent positions of their purses, suggests the good life. As analyzed by David Curry, the painting tells much about the changed character of city life, about new fortunes in the new century. He notes that the shop girl holding the lingerie for the ladies' scrutiny wears a brooch at her neck, "emblematic of rising fortunes, while a shadowy figure of a woman in the background may signify the waning of a centuries-old system of close bargaining between buyer and seller. This woman . . . wears a subdued outfit that is eclipsed by the splendid hats and cloaks of the Mmes. Glackens and Shinn. Holding one gloved hand to her chin, she seems to contemplate a parallel eclipse of the old way of doing business."[70] An apparently simple moment of shopping reveals much about the new urban mores that were to dominate in a changed twentieth-century America.

Glackens's broad stroke and dark palette, which were characteristic of his early works, recall paintings by Velazquez or Edouard Manet, both of whom were greatly admired by modernists at the turn of the century. Later, in urban scenes like The Green Car, 1912 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and in portraits and still lifes, Glackens resorted to the more delicate touch and broken stroke of the impressionists, particularly Renoir. Impressionist painters, in both France and America, discovered in the city multiple inspirations for their art, a congruence of modern metropolitan motif and modern artistic style. William Merritt Chase was among the first to seize such opportunities in the American city. Beginning in 1886, he delighted in painting the New York cityscape, particularly the public spaces that had been created in Manhattan and Brooklyn parks. In An Early Stroll in the Park, circa 1890 (fig. 17), he celebrated Frederick Law Olmsted's landscape art, as well as Emma Stebbins's sculpture of the Bethesda Fountain. The scene took on contemporary significance as well: the area depicted had lately been refurbished and the fountain's hydraulics updated, suggesting that the white-gowned stroller is symbolic of the purity of Central Park's waters and, in a larger sense, the restorative powers of Central Park's urban oasis.

Impressionist technique that served Chase so well in his paintings of Central and Prospect Parks was also employed by his associate Childe Hassam. During World War I, Hassam, inspired by patriotic displays in New York City, embarked on a series of flag paintings, to which Avenue of the Allies (Flags on the Waldorf), 1917 (cat. no. 29), is conceptually and formally related (although never exhibited as part of the series). Here, towering structures, rendered with flickering stroke, provide a backdrop for the varicolored banners of the allies, Britain, France, and the United States dominating the foreground. Beneath these large and colorful forms, the street level is crowded with urban masses simply rendered in elongated vertical strokes that rhyme with the building's columns and the stripes of Old Glory. Though the young modernist Albert Gallatin applauded the manner in which Hassam's flag paintings captured New York's "bannered beauty," he faulted the older artist because "in none of them does there appear among the crowds a soldier or a sailor [which] would have given a certain note" of patriotism and truth. [71]

Despite the light and colorful flag subject, there is a density and compactness to Hassam's painting that reflects the nature of urban space that by the twentieth century was home to an increasing number of Americans. This spatial quality could be expressed in figurative terms as well as architectural, and it could be found also in the El or the subways, both favorite subjects of New York's urban scene painters. About 1910, in The Under World (fig. 18) Samuel Woolf painted a diverse cast of urban characters -- uniformed bellhop and public servant, young parents with children, fashionably dressed nocturnal celebrants -- who speed through the subterranean darkness in a democratic vehicle that, by that date, traversed boroughs, bringing together passengers of various classes and races. A generation later, Reginald Marsh captured an even more diverse crowd of passengers in Subway-14th Street (cat. no. 45); shop girls and clerical workers of the "pink collar" trades, African Americans, an aged Jewish gentleman, and other ethnic types populate Marsh's city scenes, suggesting the transformation that immigration, transportation, and commerce brought to the modern metropolis.

The city as subject has inspired numerous artistic responses, from abstractions by various visitors; to the immaculate architectural forms of precisionists like Charles Sheeler or Charles Demuth; to the social concerns of realists like Ben Shahn or Jack Levine; to Edward Hopper's haunting images of city buildings and their occupants (fig. 19); to the imaginative fantasies of surrealists and their allies, including O. Louis Guglielmi. Levine's City Lights, 1940 (cat. no. 41), and Guglielmi's Tenements, 1939 (cat. no. 25), provide striking responses to the urban scene at the end of the Great Depression. The former focuses on huddled human forms, rendered with agitated, expressive strokes and topped by a death's head, suggesting a somber view of the city scene. Guglielmi's impression of the metropolis is equally funereal, but rendered without the human form. Human concerns, however, are implied through the vacant dwellings crowned with funeral wreaths and in the parade of coffins that leads across the street and into the picture. It is a strange design, one that Guglielmi repeated in One Third of a Nation (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Both of Guglielmi's works were likely inspired by Franklin Roosevelt's second inaugural address in March 1937, in which the President railed against the vision of "one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished."[72] The issue and Roosevelt's stirring rhetoric inspired other creators, resulting, for instance, in the stage play One Third of a Nation, which advocated federal action to improve substandard housing, and in Hale Woodruff's didactic pair of paintings, Results of Good Housing and Results of Poor Housing, circa 1941-43 (figs. 20-21); but none was as incomparably strange and memorable as Guglielmi's surreal view of modern urban life, or death.


This page is 7 of 12 pages

Go to page 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8 / 9 / 10 / 11 / 12 (Notes)

Editor's note: This essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 9, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Charles C. Eldredge and the University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. The essay was previously included in pages 7 through 70 in an illustrated exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings from Southeastern Museums, circa 1800-1950. The exhibit was held at the Columbus Museum from February 8 and through April 11, ,2004 with additional venues including the Tampa Art Museum (April 25-July 11, 2004), The Speed Art Museum (September 14-December 12, 2004) and the El Paso Art Museum (January 16-April 10, 2005). The exhibition catalogue was published in 2004, ISBN 0-8203-2569-4. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. We wish to extend our appreciation to Mr. Tom Butler, director, The Columbus Museum for his courtesy in connection with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact The Columbus Museum through either this phone number or web address:

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library Magazine for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2003, 2004 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.