Scene4-Internal Magazine of Arts and Culture
City of Spires and Masts | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine | June 2017 |

City of Spires and Masts:
New York City in Prints 1900-1940

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

    Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and
    A million people--manners free and superb--open voices--
       hospitality--the most courageous and friendly young men,
    City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts! 
    City nested in bays! my city!


So writes Walt Whitman in his paean to New York City, describing the raw energy, the bustle, the contrasts of the place he called by the bold “aboriginal” name, Mannahatta. And much of that energy and contrast is captured in a small but exceptional exhibit of American prints entitled Urban Impressions New York City from 1900-1940 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The eighteen lithographs, etchings, acquatints, and linoleum cuts in the show chronicle the early 20th century as New York survived World War I and the Great Depression, while all the while propelling itself forward into the uncharted waters of modern industry, art, and culture.


Among the artists featured are John Sloan, charter member of the Ashcan School of American Realism; Hale Woodruff, the noted African-American painter and muralist; Reginald Marsh, master of the slice-of-life genre style; Childe Hassam with his Impressionistic leanings; John Marin and Milton Avery, with their embrace of abstraction; Joseph Pennell, influenced by Whistler; Isabel Bishop, a member of the Fourteenth Street School; illustrator Clare Leighton, and Martin Lewis, Australian born printmaker of the Great Depression.  While their styles and choice of printmaking media differed, they shared a sense of awe at myriad of images and inspiration which America’s largest city offered.


Student curator Sarah Freshnock has carefully selected the works which fall into three thematic groups: cheerful scenes of the city’s throngs – crowds going about their daily routines; darker scenes of the sufferings caused by the Great Depression and the seamier side of city life; and non-figurative compositions in which Manahatta’s towering skyscrapers and colorful crowded cityscapes become the central characters.




Among the most striking images of New Yorkers are the prints by John Sloan and Reginald Marsh. The interesting cross-section of Sloan’s work gives shape to the artist’s description of his mission to depict “the drab, shabby, happy, and human life.”  The 1908 lithograph, Amateur Lithographers, is a riot of kinetic line, endowing the two male artists with a muscular power and raw vitality. A similar view of working class women, the etching Return from Toil, shows a dense crowd of shop girls making their way through rush hour streets.






Or there is his 1928 etching Fourteenth Street which captures the vibrant diversity of the crowds- against a backdrop of trollies and theatre marqees. Or there are two views of Washington Square from 1923 in which a man and two women sit on a bench while a shoeshine boy polishes one woman’s shoes. Both are lithographs, though one is shrouded in shadow – night and day views of the scene, demonstrating Sloan’s affinity for dramatic chiaroscuro. His 1926 Easter Eve Washington Square poses three flappers like the Three Graces framed by the Village arch; they are smartly dressed, carrying lilies, and there is an uncharacteristic air (for Sloan) of gaiety about them. 




For while the majority of Sloan’s prints and paintings have an air of seriousness, cheeriness and mirth often mark the work of Reginald Marsh. The Marsh prints in this exhibition speak to the artist’s sense of humor and his ironic observation of humankind, as well as his delight in figurative scenes that bustle with activity. His 1929 lithograph Penn Station depicts the underground platforms with commuters dashing in every direction. The subjects come from every walk of life from well-dressed businessmen to scruffy newsboys to fashionable ladies, each encapsulating his/her own world and story. Similarly, Smokehounds recreates the seedy world of the Bowery with the Third Avenue El looming overhead and  a sign reading All Night Mission in the background.  The central triad of figures includes two shabby men helping a third to his feet, while in the background other clusters pass liquor bottle or look on with voyeuristic interest.




Using similar subject matter Martin Lewis drypoint etching, Relics, imposes an semi-aerial perspective on the dark street-lit corner where several silhouetted figures head toward a speakeasy.  The bold diagonal of the street intersection together with the top lighting from lampposts gives the piece a combination of allure and danger.  The artist’s 1930 Shadow Dance also makes use of some unusual lighting effects in depicting a trio of silhouetted ladies, in cloche hats, and a another group of two women and a man lit from behind so that they become silhouettes which cast eerie, almost architectural shadows.




Other notable works in the figurative groups include Isabel Bishop’s soft focus etching of two girls with ice cream cones, Kenneth Hayes Miller’s Leaving the Shop, which shows two plump well-dressed matrons leaving a ladies’ boutique with smiles of satisfaction on their faces, Hale Woodruff’s Girl Jumping Rope (the only color linoleum cut) which borrows its iconography from African masks and the two-dimensionality decorativeness of primitive art, and Clare Leighton’s powerful 1932 print, Bread Line.  In this last the page is slashed by four diagonals which converge at the center of the composition. The left side is dominated by a bold sign that reads Loans beneath which the huddled, spherical hunch-shouldered line of identical faceless figures winds its way through toward the infinity of the horizon line. In the distance an almost menacingly cold skyscraper; in the foreground two men warming their hands over a makeshift fire.




While in Leighton’s work architecture, however dominating, shares the stage with the human beings, in several other prints by predominantly abstract modernists, people are banished from the composition and buildings and feats of engineering command the page. Joseph Pennell’s 1904 acquatint, Stock Exchange, draws the newly built skyscraper in a flurry of hatchings and lines which create atmospheric effects. His 1922 Brooklyn Heights at Night with its hazy blue light and moody shadows suggests a sense of wonder at the mighty Brooklyn Bridge, so beloved of abstract artists of the period for its intricate interplay of geometry, as the artist cloaks that man-made wonder in the larger phenomenon of a mysterious nightscape. Reflecting his Impressionist roots, Childe Hassam uses a sift, grainy technique in his lithograph New York Skyline Night.




In contrast, John Marin, who painted the Brooklyn Bridge in his watercolors and canvasses is represented here by an etching of the same subject where he fragments his lines to dissolve the solidity of the form and convey the latent energy of the structure. Milton Avery’s Harlem Drawbridge, a 1936 drypoint etching uses a parallel technique, allowing the bridge’s raised span to bisect dramatically the page.


This small exhibit not only reflects some of the many faces of a city as teeming, unpredictable, and rapidly changing as was New York in the first half of the 20th century, but it provides a glimpse into a variety of printmaking techniques and how these impact and color the treatment of parallel subject matter. By their very nature prints are works in miniature – perceived as less sweeping or dramatic than larger scale works


Walt Whitman described himself in Leaves of Grass by saying, Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large and contain multitudes.


It is this very dynamic synthesis of contraries that Urban Impressions depicts so well. As this exhibition demonstrates, these American printmakers have been able to create entire worlds in black and white, entire moods in composition and line, entire narratives that reach out beyond the limits of the medium and the page, giving voice to the pulsating life within.

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold |

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold's new book is Coarousel and Other Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews, interviews, and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. Read her Blog.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2017 Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold
 ©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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June 2017

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