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Monday, February 9, 2015

New York Art

New York's Central Park in Winter
Madison Square, 1906, Charles Hoffbauer
In my continuing series exploring the art of the fifty individual United States, I'm today dealing with a state that almost touches my home state of Ohio. Pretty much the only thing preventing the state of New York from touching Ohio is Erie, Pennsylvania. In writing about the various states, each presents it's own difficulties. In some cases I have to scrounge to find good art representing that state. Let's face it, not all states are equal when it comes to creative output. However, when it comes to New York, just the opposite problem presents itself. Probably no other state or city in the country has contributed so much to, not just this nation's art, but to that of the entire world as a whole, on a par with Paris, Rome, London, Venice, Florence, Amsterdam, and a few others. And ironically, that's mostly been within the past hundred years. Today, if there still remains an "art capital of the world," New York would be it.
View from Mt. Holyoke, The Oxbow, 1836, Thomas Cole
Kindred Spirits, 1849, Asher B. Durand
When we delve into why all this might be so we must look back at two vitally important "schools" of art and one important actual school of art (more on that later). New York (both state and city) was the birthplace of American art. One might argue, I suppose, in favor or Boston or Philadelphia, but art grows from the roots of the money tree, and that, of course, has long grown along the curb of 11 Wall Street, NY, NY, 10005. The American landscape painter, Thomas Cole, has long been regarded as the founder of what's long been regarded as the Hudson River School. That basically encompasses most of the New York landscape painting from around 1825, up through about 1875 (some would argue as late as 1900). Geographically it ran from Staten Island to the Adirondacks and the headwaters of the Hudson. That's a good size hunk of real estate and some of the most beautiful (back then at least) in the whole country. Artists such as Cole, Asher B. Durand, Edwin Whitefield, Albert Bierstadt, Edwin Church, Thomas Moran, and John Frederick Kensett either "taught" at the school or graduated from it to later paint the glories of the American West.
Willem De Kooning of the New York School.
The other great "school" has come to be known simply as the New York School. Except for having their financial center in New York City, separated in time by nearly a hundred years, the two had absolutely nothing to do with one another. In fact, only in it's waning years did the New York School artists actually begin to paint New York City itself. If their work had any representational content at all, it was mostly figural in nature, seldom (if ever) landscapes. That's not to say the New York school, and to a lesser degree the Hudson River School, did not influence present day urban painters. It did, but only because the city and the river which runs through it didn't go away, nor cease being important to the Empire State and the "Big Apple" which grew from the Wall Street money tree.
Morning, Looking East over the Hudson Valley from Catskill Mountains,
1848, Frederic Edwin Church
Having said all this, it's important to realize that there is much more to New York (and by inference, New York Art) than the Hudson River and the megalopolis at its mouth. The city may seem like the proverbial "tail that wags the dog," yet be that as it may, there's still a pretty hefty dog stretching to the west and north. And once you leave behind the gorgeous Edwin Church sunrises (above) and the Joseph Stella bridge (the Brooklyn Bridge), there's a lot of people, places, and things to see and paint. The unfortunate part for writers like myself, is that the art of western New York is not that different from the art of western Pennsylvania, only further north (colder and snowier). That's why the temptation to dwell so heavily upon eastern New York is so overwhelming.

Joy Ride, 1953, Grandma Moses
Something of a joy ride in the summer.
However, if one wants to sing the praises of great art produced in the rest of New York, you have only to look at the folk art of Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses. She lived most of her 101 years in the upstate area of Bennington. You know you've arrived when they use your work on a postage stamp (left). Too bad for Mrs. Moses, it came eight years after her death. A little further west we come upon the lonely presence of Charles Burchfield's Rainy Night in Buffalo, New York (below), from 1930. And at the other end of the Hudson, we encounter the nautical rendering of Fitz Hugh Lane (some relation, I like to think) New York Harbor, which, as the name explains, deals with the busy shipping commerce of one of the best ports in the world. The city is barely visible along the far shore.

A Rainy Night in Buffalo, 1930, Charles Burchfield
New York Harbor, 1860, Fitz Hugh Lane
New York's Art Students League, 215 West 57th Street.
Copyright Jim Lane
NY, NY, 1970, Jim Lane
The third school having so great an influence upon New York art and artist is an actual training institution known, with no small amount of affection, as the New York Art Students League located at 215 West 57th Street. Today it serves more than 2,500 art students representing some 130 countries around the world (and you thought I was exaggerating when I suggested New York was the art capital of the world). Founded in 1875, if I were to include a list of artists who have taught there or graduated from there (or both), it would read like a Who's Who of the greatest creative geniuses America has ever produced. Today the influence of the Art Students League has waned somewhat simply because of the spread of local university colleges of art making it much easier (and cheaper) to obtain an art education than in the past. But that hasn't lessened the draw of a city as vast and vibrant as New York in attracting artists wanting to see and sell and celebrate all the visual wonders the city has to offer.

Statue of Liberty, 1886, Edward Moran
I've spent little more than a few hours in the city yet back about 1970 I painted my first New York street scene (based on a photo taken by my brother), NY, NY (above, right) using a palette knife. I sold it almost immediately so I painted a second version. It's so dull and gray, I hesitate to expose it, but then, New York City can also be rather dull and gray. I've done a couple of the Statue of Liberty too. In doing so, I've joined the ranks (quite low in the ranks) of artist starting with Edward Moran who was probably the first to paint the great green lady on they day she was dedicated in 1986. Likewise, New York's famed Brooklyn Bridge has long been a favorite of painters coming to the big city, starting even before it was completed in 1883 as seen in the Currier & Ives print (below) dating from 1881. Thus Joseph Stella's iconic images of the bridge (below, right) dating from around 1919 came well after other artists had painted the span many times.

The Brooklyn Bridge, 1881, Currier and Ives.
The Brooklyn Bridge, 1920, Joseph Stella
Whatever the many paint-worthy sights and scenes to be found in the other cities and countryside of New York, it is the New York itself, alive with color, action, and dynamic excitement that keeps drawing artists back to what may be the most attractive and demanding images of the city to ever hit the canvas--the streets. Though artists have long ago found and fallen in love with the streets of New York in all kinds of weather, all times of the day, all times of the year, it would seem the most beguiling of all these are the modern-day scenes of the bright lights of traffic, illuminated billboards, and towering towers. Perhaps no artist has ever captured it better than in the panoramic painting which someone has titled simply, New York. It's not the bright lights of Broadway but of Times Square, and few places in all the world could match the excitement captured by this unknown artist.

New York, Unknown artist--Sinatra's "city that never sleeps."



  1. Very informative and a lot of fun. Thanks. Tony

  2. Tony--

    I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. Thank you for reading and writing.