This is an unscientific finding, but my guess is that exhibitions of urban painting from the early twentieth century are now installed more frequently than are those devoted to Impressionism. Until the 1880s, outdoor painting in this country was confined to subjects that exalted the natural American landscape, though there’s a historical asterisk in the form of a watercolor painter named William Guy Wall, who in the 1820s depicted Manhattan as seen from the shores of Brooklyn and New Jersey, respectively. William Merritt Chase pretty much invented the genre of cityscape in this country, trolling Prospect and Central Parks for genteel scenes that reflected his newly domestic life. The encroachment of buildings, and with them an industrialized workforce, was taken up in the following century by the Ashcan school. Then the floodgates opened, and a river of artists—good, bad, and indifferent—set up in the city streets. This is a main theme of Urban Realism in American Art (1890-1940), derived largely from a private collection and on view in one gallery at the Lyman Allyn Museum of Art in New London, Connecticut. Such shows are as much about social history as they are about art; in this context, mediocre works are of value insofar as they possess documentary authenticity. This adequately describes the limitations of the current exhibition, yet there are nonetheless small gems by both brand names and virtual unknowns.
In an email to me, curator Tanya Pohrt correctly noted, “The Art Students League of New York was such an important training ground for many of the artists included in the Urban Realism show.” Among those who studied at the League were Beatrice Cuming, Alfred Mira, Gifford Beal, and Isabel Bishop. Cuming was a Brooklyn girl who traveled the world before settling in New London and working at the Lyman Allyn. She’s represented here by Towering, an oil of a Connecticut factory whose repeated smokestacks are reminiscent of Charles Sheeler’s work, but with an enthusiastic bounce that’s absent from his cool precision. Mira’s view of Sheridan Square represents a more naturalistic approach to cityscape; though tepid in color and handling, it features an admirable complexity in the grasp of light, shadow, and space. Lacking the verve of Ashcan work or Hopper’s power of simplification, the low-key palette and sparsely populated street manage to convey a Depression-era atmosphere.
Like Mira’s canvas, Beal’s View from the Sheep Meadow appears to have been painted from an elevated viewpoint. By the 1920s, high rise apartment buildings already ringed Central Park, while the meadow continued to host grazing sheep well into the next decade. The attempt to reconcile Manhattan’s growth with a vestige of agrarian England looks both charming and absurd. Fresh from her studies at the League, Bishop also tried her hand at cityscape, but soon found her calling in more intimate subjects which could be loosely associated with social realism. Included in the exhibition are Bishop’s drawing and related etching Ice Cream Cones #2, which show two shop girls relaxing on the street. A comparison between the drawing and print illuminates Bishop’s process in developing an etching from the initial study, as well as revealing adjustments she made to the figures. Bishop revisited this theme for several years, producing variations in paint as well as in print form.
Perhaps the printmaker most identified with urban themes was Martin Lewis, an Australian immigrant who taught at the League in the 1940s and 50s. Lewis favored strong contrasts and black passages, so it stands to reason that nocturnes played a prominent role in his output, and that Hopper learned about the printmaking craft from him. Chance Meeting is a characteristic work, a street narrative that could have been clipped from film noire. The arrangement of values is expert, which helps one forgive the narrative cliché, even as it lends the scene an ominous overtone. At center a young couple engages in what the exhibition’s notes describe as “cautious flirtation,” but their postures—pelvises thrust forward—betray less inhibited intent.
Reginald Marsh was deeply connected to the League, first as a student and later as a renowned teacher. He was an accomplished draftsman whose signature work dealt with urban life, often that of the lower classes (“Well bred people,” he said, “are no fun to paint.”). He found inspiration in the streets, subways, burlesque halls, and on city beaches, where the public baring of skin allowed a natural opportunity to study the figure. Whereas Bishop almost exclusively chronicled working women in private moments, Marsh was fascinated by the hurly-burly of New York City and the implicit sexuality of his subjects. In Carousel Horse he turned his back on the human spectacle of Coney Island that he so enjoyed, in order to endow life to a wooden horse seen leaping against an ocean backdrop. It is, like the best work in this show, a minor piece, yet it presents an unusual and rewarding fragment of city life in a different time.
Adjacent to Urban Realism, the museum has installed drawings from its permanent collection. The survey is eclectic and interesting; a large dry brush of dead crows by Andrew Wyeth looks back to Winslow Homer’s Fox Hunt but also anticipates Wyeth’s turn away from the fluid watercolors he’d painted a few years earlier. Nearby is an achingly tender silverpoint, Head of a Woman, by Thomas Wilmer Dewing. Although the drawing reveals itself so vaguely as to be nearly indiscernible, the portrait’s structure is evident—Dewing’s model was one of his favorites, Ingri Olsen, who was evidently gifted with good bones. Her appearance lent itself to the ethereal qualities then much sought after by Tonalists.
Notable among the French selections is a marvelous small watercolor related to the Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero, one of Delacroix’s youthful masterpieces, now in the Wallace Collection in London. The watercolor, which depicts the executioner standing nonchalantly beside the body of his victim, was signed by the artist, which raises the possibility that it was painted for a private collector, rather than as a preliminary study. Even more intriguing is Jean Ingres’ Study for the Portrait of Mme. Moitessier, Standing. It is a preparatory drawing for the portrait now in the National Gallery in Washington, which was itself painted as a secondary conception of the subject. Ingres began work on a seated portrait of Marie-Clotilde-Inès Moitessier in 1844, returning to the canvas intermittently until its completion in 1856; the standing portrait was painted relatively quickly, between the summer and winter of 1851. Both paintings induced a beautiful series of pencil studies of the sitter’s face, arms, and drapery, all of which functioned not only as trial balloons for the painting but as the artist’s main reference points back in the studio. The present drawing shows the moment that Ingres settled on the final posture, when he moved Madame’s right arm from her side and placed it across her body; in the painting her hand fiddles with a string of pearls. “The artist,” wrote Gary Tinterow, “was clearly infatuated with his sitter’s fleshy arms, to the point that it became a topic of discussion among his friends.” It was common practice for Ingres to experiment in his drawings with the positioning of arms and legs. Mme. Moitessier may now be viewed in her multi-limbed glory in New London.
Urban Realism in American Art (1890–1940) is on view through September 10, 2017 and First Impressions: Master Drawings from the Lyman Allyn Collection is on view through October 1, 2017.