Washington Square Park & Union Square: Two Paintings of New York City from the Collection

By Courtney A. Lynch

With the sultry dog days of summer upon us, we here at Hawthorne Fine Art are daydreaming of afternoons spent taking advantage of the green, public spaces so readily available to us here in New York City. This is, of course, suggested ever more clearly by two of our newest additions to the collection, which depict two of New York City’s public park spaces: The first, a beautiful watercolor-and-ink painting by Jules Guérin (1866-1946), is entitled The Washington Arch in Washington Square (1902); and the second is an emotive gouache painting by Frank S. Herrmann (1866 – 1942) entitled Union Square (ca. 1925). The two provide insight not only into the state of painting in America in the early twentieth century, but are also records of these two iconographic public spaces which, although they developed along with the rest of Manhattan, each possess interesting histories of their own.

“Washington Square Park, Aerial View,” circa 1919 (Photo: Bobst Library/NYU)
“Washington Square Park, Aerial View,” circa 1919 (Photo: Bobst Library/NYU)

Greenwich Village’s well-known Washington Square Park, with its iconic arch, forms the terminus of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and boasts a lengthy history. Having once been a marsh fed by the Minetta Brook, the site was first used as agricultural land by Dutch settlers in the early seventeenth century. These settlers passed the land on to freed slaves, who possessed the land up until 1664. In 1679 the fields – not yet within the limits of New York City – were purchased by the Common Council of New York, for use as a public burial ground – or, ‘potter’s field’ – where the city’s unknown, poor, or yellow fever victims were to be buried. The cemetery was closed in 1825 upon its purchase by the City of New York, after which it became the Washington Military Parade Ground; one year later, the leveled area would become a public park. Following this 1826 development, the bordering streets quickly became desirable real-estate, and by the 1830’s the blocks surrounding Washington Square park comprised a bustling residential area. Along the north side of the park a row of houses from this era, built in the Greek Revival style, still remain.

Throughout the park are a number of statues honoring historical figures such as George Washington (for whom the park is named), Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Alexander Lyman Holley. However, the most iconic monument of the park is the Washington Square Arch, which marks the northern border of the park and the terminus of Fifth Avenue. In 1889 – more than sixty years after the park’s opening – a temporary memorial arch constructed of plaster and wood was erected to celebrate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration. The arch was so well received, however, that the New York architect Stanford White was called upon to design a permanent arch in its place. Washington Square Arch was modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, constructed of local Tuckahoe (Westchester) Marble, and completed in 1892. The two statues of George Washington that stand on the north side of the arch – George Washington as Commander-in-Chief, Accompanied by Fame and Valor (1914–16) by Hermon A. MacNeil, and George Washington as President, Accompanied by Wisdom and Justice (1917–18) by A. Stirling Calder – were not added until 1918.

Jules Guérin illustrated the park while on assignment for Century Magazine’s midsummer 1902 issue. Having been tasked to capture the essence of Washington Square Arch and the park that houses it – a space changing as rapidly as the surrounding city – Guérin’s watercolor is not just a depiction of the park, but a record of one of its iterations.

Jules Guérin (American, 1866-1946) The Washington Arch in Washington Square, an illustration for Century Magazine, August 1902 Watercolor and ink on linen mounted to paperboard 27 x 19 1/2 in. (68.4 x 49.6 cm) Signed
Jules Guérin (American, 1866-1946)
The Washington Arch in Washington Square, an illustration for Century Magazine, August 1902
Watercolor and ink on linen mounted to paperboard
27 x 19 1/2 in. (68.4 x 49.6 cm)
Signed “-Jules Guérin-” lower left

Guérin was a highly sought-after architectural delineator by trade. He worked most notably on such projects as the State Parks Commission for Washington (better known as the McMillan Plan); Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett’s Plan of Chicago, Henry Bacon’s Lincoln Memorial; and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

However, Guérin also had a great interest in painting. He was careful to maintain jobs as an illustrator – frequently contributing to Scribner’s and Century Magazines – and devoted the last decade of his career to mural commissions. Throughout his oeuvre, Guérin’s works display bold yet balanced color schemes limited to a simple and classic palette. As his illustrations developed, Guérin placed less of an emphasis on modeling, preferring to utilize flat layers of color. This is most clearly evident in his work from the years 1902-1905. Guérin’s mature works are characterized by limited palettes of two or three colors, highlighted by a few accents, with simple compositional layouts reinforced by his mastery as a colorist.

In The Washington Arch in Washington Square, pedestrians stroll at evening time, just as the moon begins to rise above the arch. The flatness of the foliage on the trees in the foreground calls attention to the detail on the marble, while the trees’ diagonal trajectory – and the painting’s dramatic one-point perspective – leads the eye directly to the monument. As in many of his mature works, Guérin’s palette is limited to just a few colors – muted tones of grey and blue – punctuated by brief highlights of color: the woman’s coat, the light atop the church, and the rising moon. The Washington Arch is a carefully rendered testament to turn-of-the century architecture in New York City, a record of Washington Square Park in the midst of ongoing change, and a sophisticated example of Guérin’s signature style.

View of Union Square, New York City, showing park and surrounding buildings (Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)
View of Union Square, New York City, showing park and surrounding buildings (Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

Northwest of Washington Square Park, where present-day Broadway and Fourth Avenue meet, lies Union Square, another significant public space in the landscape of New York City. Formed at one of Manhattan’s most significant intersections, Union Square’s history and development is not unlike that of Washington Square Park. Upon drafting the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, it was decided that a potter’s field located at the intersection of Broadway (then called Bloomingdale Road) and Fourth Avenue (then called Bowery), formed an angle too awkward to be developed. The site was acquired by the City of New York in 1833, and opened to the public in 1839. In 1842 the central fountain was constructed, which pulled water from the recently opened Croton Aqueduct in Westchester County. By 1845 the surrounding area had been developed, and began to fill with residential housing. It was not until after the Civil War that commercial enterprises began to move into the area. Throughout its two-centuries long history, Union Square has been the site for public gatherings such as protests, speeches and rallies, as well as social and political demonstrations. Most notably, Union Square was the site of the first Labor Day parade in 1882.

Similar to Washington Square Park, Union Square has also undergone several re-designs throughout its history. The first was in 1872, by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. In the late 1920’s, Union Square was all but completely dismantled in the construction of the subway concourse, while the decades of the 1920’s and 30’s saw changes in pedestrian walkways, landscaping, and building construction.

It was practically on the eve of this 1920’s demolition that the American artist and New York City native Frank S. Herrmann painted his intimate depiction of Union Square. Though a close friend to high-profile artists such as Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Klee, Herrmann’s unassuming manner and general resistance to selling his work relegated him to the background of the art historical record – despite his unique and thoughtful contributions to the canon and influences on his contemporaries.

Frank S. Herrmann (American, 1866-1942) Union Square, circa 1925 Gouache on cardboard 12-1/4 x 15-1/2 inches (31.1 x 39.4 cm) Signed lower right: F.S. Hermann Inscribed lower left: Union Square- N.Y.
Frank S. Herrmann (American, 1866-1942)
Union Square, circa 1925
Gouache on cardboard
12-1/4 x 15-1/2 inches (31.1 x 39.4 cm)
Signed lower right: F.S. Hermann
Inscribed lower left: Union Square- N.Y.

With formal European training and twenty-five years spent among artist circles in Munich, Herrmann’s style shifted early on from technical and academic, to loose and impressionistic. Though he never developed a fully modernist style – even while among the German Expressionists and der Blaue Reiter group – Herrmann’s work progressed dramatically during his time in Munich. Ultimately, the style he embraced was post-impressionistic. In 1918, at the age of fifty-two, Herrmann returned to America, where he would spend the remainder of his life painting scenes of his native New York City and his family home in Elberon, New Jersey. Herrmann’s paintings were only exhibited several times at the end of his career, to rave reviews.

Union Square is a striking example of Herrmann’s mature, developed style. The familiar square is covered in a dusting of snow, the mute tones suggestive of the cloudiness of a winter evening, while the darkening sky recalls a winter’s chill. Herrmann’s impressionist influences are fully developed here, yet his lifelong pursuit of a truthful romanticism remains: lit windows from beyond the trees twinkle in their branches, like festive lights strung up for a holiday, suggestive of the warmth that lies within.

Both works are welcome additions to the collection, and are considerable complements to two other paintings of Manhattan parks, both by Paul Cornoyer: Early Evening, Empire Park, New York (1910), and Gramercy Park. Works such as these convey a deep sense of the tone and atmosphere of twentieth century New York City; they capture a specific moment in time, while providing the viewer with intimate frames for the historical consideration of these now-familiar spaces.

Should you be interested in learning more about these or any other pieces in the collection, we invite you to make an appointment at our Manhattan showroom, or visit us online at http://www.hawthornefineart.com.

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