Viewing New York in the Interwar Period

New York City of the late 1920s and 1930s – an era bracketed by World Wars – witnessed cultural change colored by societal contradictions. A unique combination of ethnic diversity, white-collar industries, and concentrated wealth made the city a playground for the intellectual elite. Accordingly, “writers, painters, and musicians were increasingly drawn to the city” since it had a “‘plugger’ culture, in which money, public relations, and creativity were harnessed together.”[1] Painters and artists thus reacted in diversity of ways to this atmosphere. While the Fourteenth Street School used a reformist style of Social Realism, for example, the so-called Park Avenue Cubists retreated into their cloistered and privileged lives. In three works currently at Hawthorne Fine Art, each artist recorded his or her impression of interwar city life.

A member of the Ashcan school’s core artists grouped ‘The Eight,’ Ernest Lawson painted in the late 19th century and early 20th century in a style that mixed French Impressionism with the gritty subjects of American Social Realism. In a manner distinct from peers like George Bellows and John Sloan, however, Lawson used the sketchy Impressionism he had seen in Paris to depict working-class subjects. When Lawson painted Washington Heights in On the Harlem River, therefore, he painted the surrounding nature in a pastel, variegated palette while reserving a blunt, realist style for the area’s warehouses.

Though artist Frank Herrmann used a similarly impressionist style for Union Square (ca. 1925), the work is clearly influenced by the muted colors of the Ashcan school. The work’s moody tone and speckled, yellow highlights also suggest Hermann’s friendship with artists like the photographer Alfred Stieglitz and the Swiss painter Paul Klee. Union Square captures this downtown landmark in winter with snow on the ground and barren trees. This would have been a typical scene for Herrmann as the artist frequently traveled between the family residences in New York City and New Jersey in the 1920s.

By the late 1920s, New York had become a “boomtown” of commercial architecture and a “world-class” city.[2] As proclaimed by the Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs published in 1929, the city’s “most striking architectural feature [was] its mass of high buildings as seen from the surrounding areas of open water.”[3] Artists were quick to interpret their changing surroundings; while some like Stieglitz photographed skyscrapers, others like George Bellows focused on the intimate areas of the city in works like Gramercy Park (1920). Significantly, the painting View of Gramercy Park by Maud Mary Mason represents a unique mixture of these desires. Painted from her apartment at 36 Gramercy Park East, the work is both a personalized scene of city dwelling and a window onto the changing topography of Manhattan’s real estate.

 

[1] Homberger, Eric. The Historical Atlas of New York City, Second Edition: A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City’s History (New York: Macmillan, 2005), 117.

[2] Boyer, M. Christine. The City of Collective Memory: Its Historical Imagery and Architectural Entertainments (New York: MIT Press, 1996), 464.

[3] Ibid.

 

Lawson, Ernest_On the Harlem River-2.jpg

Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), On the Harlem River, Oil on canvas, Hawthorne Fine Art.

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Frank S. Herrmann (1866-1942), Union Square, ca. 1925, Gouache on cardboard, Hawthorne Fine Art.

 Alfred Stieglitz From My Window at An American Place.png

Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), Alfred Stieglitz: From My Window at An American Place, North, 1931, Gelatin silver print, Art Institute of Chicago.

Bellows Gramercy Park.jpg

George Bellows, Gramercy Park, 1920, private collection.

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Maud Mary Mason (1867—1956), View of Gramercy Park [from 36 Gramercy Park East], ca. 1929-31, Oil on canvasboard, Hawthorne Fine Art.

 

By Lizzie Frasco

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