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Thursday, March 23, 2023

New York, New York! The 20th Century

by David F. Setford

It is often said that during the latter half of the twentieth century, Manhattan became the center of the art world. But that change happened by degrees, as new influences led to new movements, gradually producing an art that was truly American and that was born in New York City.

In paintings, photographs, sculpture, and works on paper, the exhibition New York, New York! The 20th Century examines the happy confrontation of art with the changing face of New York in the twentieth century.

Drawn from the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, it is astonishing how many great works in the Norton’s collection relate to New York City. Ralph Norton and his first wife, Elizabeth Calhoun Norton, began their core collection with American paintings and clearly had a penchant for the American scene. The exhibition contains some of Mr. Norton’s great masterpieces of American painting, including Manhattan-themed showstoppers by George Bellows, Ernest Lawson, Reginald Marsh, and Edward Hopper, along with works by the likes of Stuart Davis, Childe Hassam, John Marin, and Mark Tobey, acquired by later administrations. During a time in which so much was happening so quickly in the great metropolis, photography again and again captured those events and changes. Works by such photographers as Andreas Feininger, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen, who captured the Flatiron building, the graceful Brooklyn Bridge, and Yankee Stadium when they were new and symbolic of the burgeoning metropolis, are juxtaposed with Jim MacMillan’s photograph of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The exhibition creates a compelling vision of the developing environment of Manhattan during the twentieth century, and, like the city itself, it pulsates with energy.

Stuart Davis (American, 1894–1964)
New York Mural, 1932
Oil on canvas, 84 x 48 in.
Frame: 94-1/8 x 58-1/8 x 2-3/4 in.
Purchased through the R. H. Norton Fund, 64.17

Born in Philadelphia, Stuart Davis’s early works were painted under the influence of the Ashcan School and Robert Henri. After the Armory Show of 1913, he experimented with modernism, and in 1928 he spent time in Paris, absorbing the abstraction of Braque, Picasso, and Raoul Dufy. New York Mural is perhaps Stuart Davis’s masterpiece, replete with imagery representing New York life and politics. The central image is the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world. Behind it is a white sail from which a rope leads to a martini-drinking moon. Ships often smuggled "moonshine" into New York during the Prohibition era. Al Smith, governor of New York for most of the 1920s, was opposed to Prohibition. In the painting, a brown derby hat, Smith’s trademark, perches on a banana, recalling Smith’s presidential campaign song “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” The lion’s head was the symbol for Tammany Hall, the home of New York’s Democratic Party, and the tiger’s tail, shaped like a shepherd’s crook, likely relates to “crookedness” within the party.

Ernest Lawson (American, 1873–1939)
Hoboken Water Front, about 1930
Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 in.
Frame: 48 x 58-1/2 x 2-1/2 in.
Gift of R. H. Norton, 46.12

Ernest Lawson was said by disparaging critics to have painted using “crushed jewels,” and this work demonstrates wonderfully his bright and scintillating palette. A student of American Impressionist John Twatchman, who also spent time in France, Lawson devoted himself in his mature years to the landscape scenery around his home in Washington Heights, New York. An original member of The Eight, the group who formed in opposition to the artistic preferences of the National Academy of Design, Ernest Lawson is known for depictions of the Hudson River, the Harlem River, and Hoboken, New Jersey. He painted with heavy impasto and an energy that sometimes verged on the crude. However, his paintings are immensely appealing, as proven by this robust depiction of the Hoboken waterfront, seen from the Hudson River.

Everett Shinn (American, 1876–1953)
Concert Stage, 1905
Oil on canvas, 16-1/2 x 20 in.
Frame: 22-1/2 x 26-3/8 x 3 in.
Bequest of R. H. Norton, 53.176

Everett Shinn was one of a group of young artists (which also included John Sloan, George Luks, and William Glackens) who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the 1890s, Everett Shinn’s subsequent occupation as a newspaper illustrator gave him the opportunity to develop his talents. After visiting France and England in 1900, he settled in New York, where he came under the influence of Robert Henri, who promoted the idea that art was to be found in everyday life. The youngest member of The Eight, Shinn clearly appreciated the work of Edgar Degas, and after 1904 became increasingly preoccupied with theater scenes, in particular the popular vaudeville theaters. In a letter to Ralph Norton, Shinn described the scene in Concert Stage as, “ …one of our vaudeville theatres in those days of smothering skirts.”

Reginald Marsh (American 1898–1954)
Golden Horseshoe, 1940
Watercolor on paper, 27-1/4 x 41 in.
Frame: 35 x 48 x 2-3/4 in.
Bequest of R. H. Norton, 53.122

Born in Paris to American-artist parents, Reginald Marsh and his family settled in New Jersey in 1900 when he was two. After graduation from Yale, he made his living in New York, first as a freelance newspaper and magazine illustrator, then as a staff artist for the Daily News, and finally for The New Yorker. Under his mentor, Kenneth Hayes Miller at the Art Students League, Marsh sought out places such as Coney Island where he could observe, “…crowds of people in all directions, all positions…” Vaudeville and burlesque shows were other favorite places to observe humanity, but Marsh also frequented the Metropolitan Opera, both as
an illustrator and reviewer. Golden Horseshoe, celebrating the pursuit of pleasure, depicts the audience in the “golden horseshoe” section of the old opera house—seating that commanded the highest priced tickets.

Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967)
August in the City, 1945
Oil on canvas, 23 x 30 in.
Frame: 31-1/2 x 38-1/2 x 3-1/2 in.
Bequest of R. H. Norton, 53.84

Hopper was a fellow student of George Bellows’ at the New York School from 1900 to 1906. Travel abroad, in particular to Paris, where he stayed several times after 1906, helped him to develop his palette and brushwork, though it was not until 1925, at age 43, that he painted what is acknowledged to be his first fully mature painting, The House by the Railroad. The underlying theme of this work and much of Hopper’s later work—the isolation of modern life—is evident in August in the City. The woman that Hopper often places in front of a window is replaced here by a statue that appears to be wringing its hands in grief or supplication. In a shallow, stage-like space, bordered by the trees of Riverside Park, the psychic emotion that emanates from the window is palpable.

Edward Steichen (American, born Luxembourg, 1879–1973)
Flatiron, New York, 1905
Photogravure, 12-7/8 x 10-1/4 in.
Gift of Raymond W. Merritt, 99.365

Edward Steichen, photographer, painter, and museum curator, was born in Luxembourg and came to the United States with his family in 1881. During his early photographic career, Steichen was known for pictorial images in which he strove for effects similar to that of painting. The Flatiron is the quintessential chromatic study of twilight, and is clearly indebted in its composition to Japanese woodcuts and to the Nocturnes of Whistler. The Flatiron building, originally called the Fuller building after the company that built it, was designed in the Chicago style, differing from most Manhattan skyscrapers of the time (like the Empire State Building), which featured a tower rising from a lower larger structure. Completed in 1902, two years before Steichen took this photograph, the building immediately became an icon, leading Stieglitz to say that it “…appeared to be moving toward [him] like the bow of a monster ocean steamer—a picture of a new America still in the making.“

George Bellows (American, 1882–1925)
Winter Afternoon (Riverside Park, New York City), 1909
Oil on canvas, 30 x 38 in.
Frame: 36-1/2 x 44-5/8 x 3-1/4 in.
Gift of R. H. Norton, 49.1

Almost as soon as he arrived in New York in 1904, George Bellows became a student at the New York School of Art, where Robert Henri exhorted his students to paint New York City subject matter. Though often remembered today for his boxing paintings and the prints made from them, Bellows’ muscular, American style is also fully expressed in his cityscapes, which depicted gritty New York scenes as diverse as Battery Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Blackwell’s Island. An athletic personality who gave up a career in baseball to paint, between 1908 and 1915, most of Bellows’ city scenes were winter scenes. “I must always paint the snow at least once a year,” he once said. Winter Afternoon depicts Riverside Park, overlooking the Hudson between W. 119th and W. 129th Streets. The frigid blue of the water and the cold afternoon shadows in the foreground are set off perfectly by the orange-brown bushes and the red of the young girl’s winter coat. An admiring contemporary wrote that his scenes were “…full of the sweep of a dashing wind and the hum of cities in the distance.”

Andreas Feininger (American, born France, 1906–1999)
Brooklyn Bridge, 1940s
Gelatin silver print, 15-1/2 x 19-1/4 in.
Gift of Wysse Feininger in memory of her husband Andreas, 2000.53

With its neo-Gothic arches and graceful lines, the Brooklyn Bridge, opened in 1883, immediately became one of the architectural icons of New York City and a source of pride for New Yorkers. The technology that made it possible was a marvel to contemporaries, and it is often seen as emblematic of an optimistic age. Originally designed by German immigrant architect John A. Roebling, until 1903, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Andres Feininger, also of German origin, arrived in the United States in 1939 after a stint working for the legendary French architect, Le Corbusier. By 1943, he had established himself as a staff photographer for Life magazine. His photographs are noted for their mixture of panoramic grandeur, sweeping grace, and feeling for the city and its architecture, all of which are apparent in Brooklyn Bridge.

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898–1992)
Statuary Shop, Water Street, New York City, 1930
Gelatin silver print, 7-3/8 x 9-3/8 in.
Purchase, R. H. Norton Trust, 2004.7

Born in Springfield, Ohio, Berenice Abbot originally intended to become a journalist and later became interested in theater and sculpture. In Paris to study sculpture, she became involved with photography in 1923, when Man Ray, looking for a novice who would not question his direction, engaged her as a darkroom assistant in Paris. She subsequently had her own studio in Paris, but on a visit to New York it 1929, realized its great artistic potential and decided to settle there for good. Using a large format camera, she chronicled disappearing buildings and districts, often juxtaposed with new developments, in a series she entitled “Changing New York.” One of her earliest works, Statuary Shop displays her technical mastery, as well as her taste in subject matter.

Paul Strand (American, 1890–1976)
Wall Street, New York, 1915, printed 1976-77
Platinum palladium print, ed. 75/100, 10-1/2 x 12-11⁄16 in.
Gift of Michael Hoffman in honor of Annette and Jack Friedland for their generous support and commitment to the highest level of photography and photographers, 92.8

The only photographer invited by Alfred Stieglitz to become a part of his group of American modernists, Paul Strand helped to define “the American Century.” Encouraged by Stieglitz to abandon his soft-focus lens, Strand portrayed architectural elements (stressing abstract form) and human models (as a means towards social reform). With painter/photographer Charles Demuth, Strand made the highly influential Manhatta (also known as New York the Magnificent) in 1921. One of the sequences in the film focuses on a long wall with office workers passing by, the same wall Strand has photographed here. In the film, the wall is a backdrop for the movement of figures, here it is the focal point; its formal, abstract elements stressed in Strand’s uncompromising hard-edged style.

Jim Macmillan (American, born 1961)
First Light, 09/12/01, from “Attack on New York” series, 2001
C-print, 30 x 40 in.
Purchase, the R. H. Norton Trust, 2002.45

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Jim Macmillan recorded the aftermath from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, in a series of striking images. The enormity of the destruction is emphasized by the lone firefighter in the foreground nearly lost amidst the debris. Light, a symbol of hope and life, is just barely visible through the smoke and detritus, creating a powerful image that reflects the devastation and emotions of that day.

The exhibition New York, New York! The 20th Century was organized by the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, and is on view at The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York, from June 12 through September 18, 2011. For information call 518.792.1761 or visit

David Setford is executive director of The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York. From 1990–1999, he was Chief Curator of the Norton Museum of Art.