Nassau County Museum of Art

Roslyn Harbor, NY



Old New York and Artists of the Period: 1900-1941

August 19, 2001 - November 4, 2001


Vibrant urban vistas and the frenzied energy of city streets are at the center of Old New York and Artists of the Period: 1900-1941, an original exhibition opening at Nassau County Museum of Art (NCMA) on August 19, 2001. The exhibition, curated for NCMA by Constance Schwartz and Franklin Hill Perrell, explores the artists of the Ashcan School and other New York Realist artists who, in the early years of the 20th century, as America increasingly became an urban nation, abandoned traditional, romanticized ways of depicting landscape and looked to the new urban frontier for their inspiration, choosing to reflect lively city streets in a starkly realistic light. Hoboes, sweatshops, beer halls and even the garbage cans dotting the streets became grist for this new urban aesthetic which came to be familiarly known as the Ashcan School. These artists -- most notably Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, Everett Shinn and George Bellows -- took on the great city of New York in all its gritty urban glory. Their stark realism strongly influenced the work of other New York Realists, such as Edward Hopper, along with artists of the 14th Street School, among them Reginald Marsh, Isabel Bishop and Raphael and Moses Soyer. Through paintings, works on paper and memorabilia, O/d New York and Artists of the Period: 1900-1941 traces this movement from its roots at the beginning of the century through 1941.

As a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Robert Henri absorbed the sober realism of Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anshutz. In turn, Henri's originality and truthful depictions of real life influenced the work of a group of young painters that included Luks, Sloan, Shinn and William Glackens. With his move to New York in 1900, Henri assumed a place as a popular teacher and inspiration for such soon-to-be-prominent artists as Hopper, Bellows and others. The adventurous new aesthetic they embraced was characterized by boldly slashed scenes of urban life and portraits of the urban poor. They portrayed downtown life and its denizens as well as scenes of the far more glamorous life of uptown. Following the rejection of these realistic works by the tradition-bound National Academy of Design, Henri organized a showing at the Macbeth Gallery. Titled The Eight, this 1908 exhibition caused a sensation and was a commercial success. (left: Raphael Soyer (1899-1987), Bus Passenger, 1939, oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 35 inches, Private Collection)

Included in NCMA's Old New York and Artists of the Period: 1900-1941 among the almost 50 paintings and drawings, most of them oil on canvas, are Henri's East River Embankment, Winter (1900), Glackens' Spring in the Square (1915-16), Bellows' Luncheon in the Park (1913), Ernest Lawson's Manhattan Excavation (1907), Marsh's The Bowery (1930), Sloan's Three A.M. (1909) and South Beach Bathers (1907-08), Raphael Soyer's In the City Park (c. 1934) and important photographs by Steichen, Stieglitz and others. Also on view are artifacts of the era that might have been commonly seen on the streets of New York, among them a push cart, other vehicles, and memorabilia of immigration, politics and entertainment of the period.

The illuminating audioguide tour for the exhibition, narrated by Schwartz and Perrell, will be available for rental to exhibition visitors. Additionally, a richly illustrated catalogue of the exhibition will be available for sale. In conjunction with O/d New York and Artists of the Period: 1900-1941, NCMA will be sponsoring several public programs that will serve to amplify and enhance the experience of viewing the exhibition's works. Among them is a September 30 program by the popular actress/lecturer, Shirley Romaine, in which she explores the extraordinary artistic ferment of the early years of the 20th century when the artists of the Ashcan School strongly influenced, and were influenced by, the poets, writers, composers and dancers of the era.

In our magazine see biographies and images for artists covered in this article in the Distinguished Artists section and an article on The Eight. Read a presentation on the Ashcan Artists from the Smithsonian American Art Museum; see also coverage of American Regionalism and 25 Social Realists of the 1930s.

Following are two essays from the exhibition cataogue, reprinted by permission of Nassau County Museum of Art:


Old New York and Artists of the Period: 1900-1941 - The Ashcan Tradition

By Constance Schwartz



New York City shines like a beacon luring resident and tourist alike to its glamorous setting. The acknowledged entertainment and cultural capitol of the world, its theaters, concert halls, arenas, skyscrapers and special attractions are extraordinary sights to behold. Yet behind the veneer of glamour, there is a "secret" underbelly. It is the inner life of the city and its people. The artist, always sensitive to the pulse of the times and environment, provides "living" documents of the city, not only its external glamour but its hidden structure behind the facade that is so sought after. This exhibition, Old New York and the Artists of the Period: 1900 to 1941 will focus on the Ashcan tradition of realism of selected artists that brought the images of New York City to "life."

Around the turn of the century in America, art here, as in Europe was dominated by highly conservative, virtually monolithic teaching and repressive academic practices. Paradoxically, this repressive attitude existed at the same time as the dynamic growth of big business: the golden age of railroads and the opening of the first electric subway line in New York City carrying passengers along Broadway to City Hall, the expansion of the telephone and telegraph, the start of the automobile industry, Wilbur and Orville Wright's first successful airplane flight, the building of the Panama Canal and new break-throughs in science and medicine. Yet, this was a Victorian age that featured a strict moral code, the development of temperance and women suffrage movements, a strong prejudice against blacks and immigrants, and plenty of room for sin and corruption. In New York City, the extravagantly wealthy society included men such as J. P. Morgan, Carnegie, Frick and Rockefeller, while the poor, mostly immigrants overpopulating the cheap labor market, were forced to live in tenements and work in sweatshops. In order to learn a living, the majority of the population crowded into the city that offered only conditions of misery. A Labor Party was formed to give the masses a political voice, while the newspapers, controlled by the wealthy, provided easy reading material and shaped public opinion.

Parallel in some respects to the European system, membership in the National Academy of Design[1] was essential if the American artist wanted to sell or show his work or receive commissions. The Academy thoroughly discriminated against all innovative concepts, controversial subject matter, and progressive styles of painting. Instead, they promoted the beaux-arts technique and neo-classical historicism influenced by the French Salon into the fabric of American art.

In New York, in an attempt to break away from the stringently restrictive practices of the Academy, several notable artists resigned to form their own independent groups, and some who had been rejected from the Academy hierarchy also banded together.

The Young Realist Painters - The Ashcan School and The Eight

In the opening decade of the new century, the academic domination of the American art world was effectively challenged by a group of young realist painters: Robert Henri, George Luks, Glackens, John Sloan and Everett Shinn. Beginning in Philadelphia as artist reporters (newspaper illustrators)[2] then in New York where they all settled, the artist-reporters sketched the sordid and the seedy, the tender and the violent, the elegant and the poor, creating a lively documentary record of the city. These artists burst onto the scene with their gutsy images full of energy and vitality. Their innovative representations, drawn and later painted, formed the nucleus of a new and powerful realist tradition in America.

Through their works, these artists told the story of the people in the city; how they lived, worked, suffered, played and died. Due to their unconventional subject matter, depicting the sordid and the poor, and as not everyone appreciated their subjects, they were derisively labeled, "The Ashcan School." In 1908 when several works by this group of artists were excluded from the annual exhibition of the National Academy, they decided to have an independent show at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City. They were joined by three other quite different painters, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast and Arthur B. Davies.[3] Beginning with these eight rebellious painters defying tradition as well as the Academy and culminating with the Armory Show in 1913, New York City was shocked into a new way of perceiving art. These artists became the champions of artistic independence and the non-conforming artist's right to have his work seen by the public.

Robert Henri (1865-1929) was the inspiration, catalyst, and acknowledged leader of the splinter group known as The Eight. While attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts he studied under Thomas Anshutz, one of Thomas Eakins' disciples. It was from Anshutz that Henri learned the tradition of the Realist movement.

Henri's enthusiasm for travel took him to Europe many times during his career to paint and study and it was there he became familiar with Velasquez, Goya and particularly Manet. Manet's blend of realism with romanticism, his dark palette and sensuous handling of paint, skilled use of flat tones without modeling, and the bold slashing use of the brush were all characteristics directly opposed to the doctrine of the Academy. For Henri, these characteristics would endure as tenets of his own art and successful teaching career and allowed for a more gestural brush-stroke and spontaneous look to his paintings.

Henri met the artist reporters Glackens, Sloan, Luks and Shinn in Philadelphia. He admired these men for the speed with which they worked, the skill in the craft and their subject matter. He remembered Eakins (through Anshutz) urging his students " peer deeper into the heart of American portray its life and strike out for themselves, and only by doing this will we create a great and distinctly American art."[4 ] Henri spoke of his basic belief - the idea - "the importance of life as the primary motive of art."[5] He urged the four artist-reporters to paint what they saw swiftly, sharply, and with a dark rich palette and a new point of view from the old sweet landscapes. The dark pictures they created earned them the title of the "Revolutionary Black Gang."

In 1899, Henri joined his comrades in New York and became a teacher at the New York School of Art founded by William Merritt Chase. As a teacher, Henri continuously urged his students to search for subject matter from everyday life, to roam New York City looking for all types of humanity to paint. In his own work he favored portraiture which displayed his basic concern with humanity in a blend of realism with romanticism, a dark palette, and sensuous handling of paint with a bold slashing use of the brush. His posed models were the people of the city and represented every walk of life.

The artist reporters were very much in vogue from 1890 to 1900 with their rapid "on-the-spot" accurate rendering of the news. When the photographic half-tone process was introduced after 1900, the use of the photograph became possible in newspaper publication and their talents were no longer required. However, those ten years provided the artistic background for Glackens, Sloan, Luks and Shinn to record the everyday life in the city.

For the most part, the loss of their jobs exerted a financial strain on these artists since it was still almost virtually impossible to sell a painting that was created by a non-academic American artist. In order to exist, Sloan created free-lance drawings for Colliers Century magazine and Socialist publications and was perhaps the most consistent of the group in his dedication to social concerns; Glackens and Shinn did free-lance illustrations for numerous periodicals and books while Luks created successful cartoons and comic strips for the New York World.

In 1904, John Sloan (1871-1951) moved to New York with his wife Dolly, and there, his subject matter became the city life around him, which perpetually amused and touched him. The city inspired him to paint the people and their environment: drab, shabby, happy, tired, sad and human. He was alert to every phase of urban life and recorded the familiar everyday sights in his paintings and hundreds of etchings. Sloan's wonderful pictures portray the streets he tirelessly roamed every day: the Bowery, West 14th Street, and lower Sixth Avenue. They were painted from memory or from his night vigils looking down from his apartment window and "the habit of watching every bit of human life I can see about my windows...[6] Sloan's paintings had a persistent personal character and gesture. He was a master of atmosphere and secret gloom. His palette included light red, yellow ochre, blue and black, "safe" colors as he called them. By not painting in the natural light of the outdoors, he missed the shimmering brilliance of the sunlight. He stated, "We were opposed to Impressionism with its blue shadows and orange lights because it seemed "unreal."[7] Sloan's compassion and non-judgmental recording of city-life have become part of America's pictorial history.

As an artist-reporter, William Glackens (1870-1938) observations were so keen and his memory so incredibly accurate that he did not have to sketch what he saw. Instead, he would recreate the exact scene as he had witnessed when he returned to his drawing board at the newspaper. Unlike Sloan, he did not share his colleague's interest in squalor and the down-trodden existence. Instead, his canvases portray upper-middle-class enjoyments; theatre-going, dining, elegant cafes and shopping at fashionable stores as well as days of enjoyment at the beach.

In 1904, Glackens married Edith Dimock, and relocated in Washington Square. In 1912, his high school friend, Dr. Alfred C. Barnes gave Glackens $20,000 to purchase contemporary art for him in Paris. There he purchased French art which included works by Renoir, Cezanne, Degas, Manet and Van Gogh, forming the nucleus of the famed Barnes collection. This experience affirmed Glackens' predilection for the work of Renoir. Indeed, Glackens' love for happy moods and scintillating brushstrokes earned him the nickname of the "American Renoir."

Everett Shinn (1876-1953) loved New York. He loved the people, noise, activity and garishness. From 1879-1903, the subject matter of his paintings was the lower-class life style in New York. When he returned to New York in 1900 from his only trip to England and France in 1900, he changed his subject matter to the glitter of uptown. Shinn painted the artificial life, the lovely ladies who were handsomely gowned, the theater and the dancers. Between 1901 and 1911, his works depict a love and interest of the theater. Shinn was a master painter of artificial light, and showed a dramatic flair for contrasting lights and darks, as well as an uptilted perspective. He is part of the tradition of the American Realists through his painted recordings of bygone vaudeville entertainment and the glamour of New York.

George Benjamin Luks (1867-1933) was a fun loving man, an excessive boaster when under the influence of alcohol, Luks claims that "the world never had but two artists, Frans Hals and little old George Luks."[8] By 1897 he had moved to the New York World, staying on staff creating cartoons and comic strips after there was no more work for the artist-reporters.

Luks roamed the streets of New York day and night looking for subject matter for his paintings. His dominant themes were the poverty and hunger of a suffering humanity. He painted his subjects with a tender understanding, once stating that "a child of the slums will make a better painting than a drawing room lady gone over by a beauty shop."[9] Luks' paintings are filled with a gusto that is at once tangible and picturesque. He is a direct painter of the familiar with no premeditation prior to his "attack" on the canvas and a believer in life and the beauty of every bit of it.

Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), in 1904, had already been dubbed by William Merritt Chase as "America's greatest landscape painter." Befriended by Glackens, he met Henri, Shinn, Luks and Sloan in 1904. Like Glackens, Lawson was trying to instill a new vigor and robustness into American Impressionism and was the only member of The Eight to paint "pure landscapes." He was inspired by the Washington Heights area in which he lived and painted the landscape in and around New York City, the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, the bridges, farmlands and woods in all seasons. His pictures were lonely statements, uninhabited by people, rich in textural and chromatic variations.

His painting surfaces became "rugged" in style when he applied the paint in a thick impasto of jewel-like colors, referred to by the critic F.K. Price " a palette of crushed jewels."[10] These painting characteristics were quite different from the surface textures of the American Impressionists and were new to America.

Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924) was the only member of The Eight to be truly modernist in his style and technique. Starting in 1904, Prendergast turned serious attention to painting in oils moving to an increasingly abstract style. His watercolors recorded the scenes directly from life as in his depictions of Central Park in New York City. The medium of watercolor offered him the spontaneity required to fulfill his need for swiftness of movement and luminosity of color. The joyous resonant tones of color and the small bursts of varied hues that have been applied as if to form a colorful mosaic, closely relate to the purest form of Post-Impressionism, although one reviewer called his work "an explosion in a paint factory."[11]

For two decades individual members of The Eight led the fight for independent art. They played essential roles in such important events in New York City as the large "Exhibition of Independent Arts" in 1910, the Armory Show of 1913, and the founding of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. These early city realists were pioneers in reawakening interest in the vitality of the American scene.

The vividness of Henri's personality was such that some of the younger painters were bound to emulate his style. George Bellows (1882-1925) came to New York from Ohio in 1904 and entered Henri's class at the New York School of Art. His major pictures offered not radicalism of style or political thought, but the charm of ebullience and a certain unthreatening vision of the disorganized poor. His paintings were a celebration of raw energy and displayed the overflowing life of lower Manhattan and the excavations of the city. The image of the city as a place where people swarmed had an undercurrent of sentimentality while his boxing pictures displayed a sense of brutal energy in the paint and the depicted action. This imagery overshadowed anything done in America in the 1900s. Literally, a "world of fists," his imagery captivated public imagination evoking a sense of life built on clash and struggle. In his portraits, the physical life of the paint strokes and pigment dramatize the immediacy of the model and assume a poetry of a psychological moment.

Edward Hopper

Reflecting an isolationist and conservative tendency in America after the First World War, the New York realists became but one aspect of a wide-ranging movement to find sustenance in the realistic depiction of American life, both urban and rural.

Edward Hopper was the quintessential realist painter of twentieth-century America. Since the 1920s, Hopper had been painting a subject matter that could be either the urban or rural scene. To both, he brought the same clarity of observation and human understanding. His realistic manner developed directly from that of the Ashcan School of Robert Henri with whom he studied in New York in the first decade of the century. Hopper's works reveal compositions that are sparse and selective, with forms painted frontally, the color muted, and action held to a minimum, one moment of frozen time. The emphasis is on mood, and the specific mood that Hopper has perfected is that of loneliness. A disquieting sense of transience and remoteness that characterizes so much of modern city life is found in his figures that are isolated and even in the deserted city streets wherein the buildings seem to go on beyond the frame.

The Fourteenth Street School

Toward the end of the 1920s and during the Great Depression, a new group of painters developed as the urban counterpart to the regionalists. Between 1927 and 1933, the period of the supreme architectural symbol of boom, the New York skyscraper, led by the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, and Rockefeller Center, became powerful cultural icons of their time. New York's shifting, rising skyline was a graph of cultural and economic impact, a condensation of lives, work and fantasy. Manhattan represented a new frontier, not horizontal expansion akin to the wagons rolling westward, but vertical expansion, the creation of wealth out of empty air.

Preferring to paint the common man and woman and in these surroundings, a group of realist artists, in the Ashcan tradition looked to the inner city for their source of inspiration. The area of 14th Street with its hustle and bustle became the center for milk box oration and the home for the Art Students League. Those artists who lived and opened studios in the area became part of what was known as the Fourteenth Street School. They rejected European modernism, instead stressing pathos and the underdog. At the center of the 14th Street School was its mentor, Kenneth Hayes Miller. He embraced the world of New York by painting groups of buxom women shoppers in fifteenth century poses, trying on clothes in department stores, shopping, going to the theater. This form of social realism had a great effect on his students, particularly Reginald Marsh and Isabel Bishop. In addition, the realistic style and concern for everyday subjects of the Ash Can School had been kept very much alive in New York at the Art Students League with Sloan as its director.

Reginald Marsh, like Sloan, found inspiration by exploring the city and depicting his fascination with the spectacle of New York City. He selected especially those locations where enthusiastic crowds gathered: the Bowery, Fourteenth Street and the beaches and fun houses of Coney Island. In place of the thick oil paint used by Sloan, Marsh preferred a Renaissance technique of thinly applied tempera, the color laid on in overpainted glazes. This gave his works a fluidity in keeping with the lively movement he depicts. He painted the human form in all its vitality, beauty and grotesqueness. Compositionally, Marsh's works are crowded with a rich profusion of human forms and exuberant girls displayed as curvy Coney Island burlesque queens in a spirit of voyeuristic detachment.

A student of Richard Hayes Miller and a close friend of Marsh, Isabel Bishop painted the modern woman of the city. Her paintings reflect curvaceous females going to work, traveling in the subways and sharing simple pleasures in a vision more modest than that of Marsh. Her work depicts a pronounced linear quality along with a pastel tonality. The sensitive surfaces of her canvases impose a screen-like finish as if she was deliberately veiling the reality of her subjects.

Raphael Soyer and Moses Soyer were twin brothers. To shake off each other's influence, Raphael studied at the National Academy of Design, and later with George Luks at the Art Students League. Moses, in turn, switched to the Educational Alliance Art School. Both were students of Miller. They never shared a studio, yet their paintings show a "deep love of humanity and an attitude toward life which is tolerant, homely and gentle."[12]

Except during the Depression, almost all of Raphael Soyer's work has been done in the studio. When he painted crowd scenes, derelicts and breadlines as his subject matter, the faces and demeanor of the protagonists reveal the difficult times in which they lived. These were recordings of the heavy human cost of the Depression and a reflection of the Depression's very real world of hard times. For Raphael Soyer, the studio eventually became a thoroughfare through which all life flowed. Prostitutes, dancers, bums or models brought their lives, hopes and despair into his world. All of his work is invariably autobiographical and he admits, "My work is always me and how I look at the world." Although Soyer's personal sympathies were leftist, his art remained apolitical. Like the other members of the Fourteenth Street School, as the Soyers are traditionally classified, they preferred to depict the drab anguish of individual humanity.

In Conclusion

After the shock of the Armory Show of 1913, experimental painting in America lost much of its impetus. The Depression confirmed this by turning American eyes inward, their ills and troubles and their national character which was quite different from anything one could find in Europe. Instead, the artists recorded the spectacle of life in the city, from the turn of the century through 1941, a documentation for all time.



1. The National Academy of Design in New York will hereafter be referred to as the Academy. It was the recognized "Academy." Academies in America were based in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston.

2. The newspapers needed photographs to help dynamically present the stories of the day. Although cameras were in wide use, the film development process had not been refined enough to provide the reproducible photographs required by newspapers on a twenty-four hour deadline. This need created a new job category - that of artist-reporters. Accompanying a news reporter, this new breed of artist-reporter made on-the-spot drawings of the events of everyday living. No secret or intimacy of daily life was safe from their probing eyes and talented hands.

3. Arthur B. Davies is not included in this exhibition inasmuch as he preferred painting idyllic fantasies and romantic scenes of women in landscapes. His prime contribution to the development of American art was that he was selected in 1911 to organize an exhibition of independent American artists and conceived the idea of making it a much larger survey to include recent European painting. This was the International Exhibition of Modern Art which opened in New York on February 17, 1913 in the 69th Regiment Armory, becoming known everafter as the Armory Show.

4. Bennard B. Perlman, "The Immortal Eight." Westport, Conn.: Northlight Publishers.

5. Ibid.

6. Bruce St. John, ed. "John Sloan's New York Scene." New York: Harper & Row, 1965, p. 549 for a complete version of his philosophy of art.

7. Sloan notes, p. 170, Archives of American Art

8. Edith de Shavo, "Everett Shinn-A Figure in His Time." New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1974.

9. Philadelphia Ledger, October 30, 1933

10. Richard J. Boyle, "American Impressionism." A New York Graphic Society Book, New York and Canada: Little Brown and Co., 1974, p. 223.

11. Lloyd Groodrich and John I. H. Bauer, "American Art of Our Century." Published for the Whitney Museum of American Art by Frederick A. Praeger, New York, New York, 1961, p. 25.

12. Milton W. Brown, "American Painting from the Armory Show to the Depression." Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1955, p. 185.



The New York Context of the Aschcan School

by Franklin Hill Perrell


The painters of 1900 and their followers to the brink of World War II were awed by the spectacle of New York. It had truly become a cosmopolis, a world city, soon to become the dominant economic center of the world. New York was the stage on which a transformation of American life was being played out. For the first time in U.S. history, more people lived in cities than on farms. In this period, internationalism overtook provincialism, as New York vied with, and ultimately surpassed, rivals like London and Paris, in population, money, innovation, and sheer clout.

The Ashcan painters were indeed the quintessential painters of the New York scene, anticipating and laying the groundwork for the social realists and urban regionalists of the 1930's. Without the inspiration of New York's unique combination of ever-changing pictorial ingredients, there would have been no Ashcan School. As artist reporters, these painters recognized elements which made New York unlike any other city in America or the world.

New York in 1900 was above all marked by its surging immigrant population. Each new wave of arrivals established and provided a market for the services and goods produced by their immediate successors. Their sheer numbers, cramped into airless tenements (first known as tenant houses), aroused the photographic reportage of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. In 1900, 42,700 tenements housed 1,585,000 people.[1] The overcrowding, arguably worse than Calcutta, prompted a social agenda of reform and ultimately leftist politics such as Socialism and Communism. Sixteen million immigrants first glimpsed the Statue of Liberty and passed through the portals of Ellis Island from its opening in 1892 until immigration was curtailed in 1924.[2] Immigrants brought into the U.S. as much as they could physically carry, tools, bedding, clothing, cooking utensils and a plethora of goods from their homelands. Late arrivals spent the night in dormitories on the island and those who were rejected, through failing the dreaded medical examinations, or any of the myriad bureaucratic requirements, were shipped back to their homelands. Confronted with the unknown, and fraught with hope and fear, incredible courage and heroism animated the success of those who came to establish themselves. According to social reformer Robert Hunter, writing in 1912, "In New York alone there are more persons of German descent than in any city in Germany except Berlin. There are nearly twice as many Irish as in Dublin, about as many Jews as in Warsaw, and more Italians than in Naples or Venice."[3] The diverse languages and viewpoints of the immigrants transformed the city ideologically as the circumstances of their housing and labor impacted its physical topography.

The pace of change affected every aspect of New York life. Innovations in electricity, the telephone, printing of newspaper photos, motion pictures and radio followed in rapid succession. The city became an organism empowered by rapid transit, as engineering marvels of bridges and tunnels were built, subways linked distant points and the uniform fares promoted the development of the city's extremities. The immigrants had made their way over water, on ships, from Europe. As an island, the city's heart, Manhattan, was perforated around its edges with the liveliest shipping in the world. Transportation of these goods to points elsewhere was effected by elaborate train connections, supplemented by automotive trucking which quickly replaced the horse and wagon. Underlying bedrock, and the constant replenishment of labor, enabled building skyscrapers to unprecedented height, impelled by the density of both population and trade, indelibly defining New Yorkâ¤s identity.

As the immigrants became cognizant of their rights, their confidence, or perhaps their desperation, increased, and they became increasingly vocal in fighting for improved working conditions. They formed unions to protest economic exploitation such as child labor, sweatshops, dangerous machinery, sixteen-hour workdays and other unsafe conditions. Women established the International Ladies Garment Worker's Union in 1900 and fought for improved conditions with their successful shirtwaist workers' strike in 1909 and cloakmakers' strike in 1910.[4]

Big-time politics supported the labor reform movement as a result of the public outcry following the worst factory fire in New York history, Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, March 25, 1911. Al Smith, then a member of the State Assembly, called for an investigation when it was learned that the 146 women who perished, mostly Italian or Jewish immigrants aged between thirteen and twenty-five, had been locked in the factory workroom and had no means of escape other than leaping out the eighth-floor windows. Eyewitnesses described bodies that looked like burning bundles of rags landing on the street. Though state labor codes were revised after this fire, the factory's owners were acquitted of manslaughter and ordered to pay $75 in damages to each victim's family.[5]

Despite the abuses that overshadowed the booming economics, the city's positive aspects were compelling. The topographical variety was enormous, from the inspiring vista of the Battery in lower Manhattan and bustling ports, to neighborhoods each of whose complexion and character reflected the history and circumstances of its inhabitants. The city consisted of environments as different from one another as independent countries sandwiched together: the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, Gramercy Park, Chelsea, Yorkville, on to Harlem and further to Inwood and Washington Heights at the top of Manhattan. There were diverse, and frequently shifting ethnic neighborhoods: Chinese, Syrian, Turkish, Greek, Russian, Polish, Jewish, Italian, Irish, French, Czech, Hungarian, German, Scandinavian, Finnish, and African-American.[6] Each of these was punctuated with distinctive parks, recreation piers or roof gardens, restaurants, theatres and entertainments affording every cosmopolitan variety. New Yorkers went to vaudeville, burlesque or the music hall, the Metropolitan Opera, danced the Charleston, attended Broadway plays as well as melodramas of the Yiddish theatre. They listened to Jazz music and Italian and Yiddish songs, live, or on records, and later on the radio, and sang from sheet music at home any of the hundreds of songs inspired by New York.

Further out, in far-flung boroughs was the lure of the sea, especially Coney Island along the Brooklyn shore. The age-old spectacle of nature where a primal response to the combination of sea, sand and sky afforded a symbol and means of release from the squalor and crushing pressures of urban congestion and its unremitting demands. Amusement parks, with themes of make-believe and fantasy, supplemented these natural attractions with man-made entertainments. George C.Tilyou founded Steeplechase Park in 1897, saying, "Americans want to be either thrilled or amused, and we are ready to pay well for either sensation." Luna Park attracted 45, 000 visitors on its opening night in 1903, and Dreamland followed within a year. According to John F. Kasson in Amusing the Million, Coney Island "signalled the rise of a new mass culture no longer deferential to genteel tastes."[7]

The larger issues of history frame this unique period. By 1900, U.S. President McKinley presided over the advent of what some construed as an American Empire actualized with the successful conclusion of the Spanish-American War. McKinley's successor, New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt, furthered this process with his "big stick" policies, the accompanying expansion of U.S. military might, and building the Panama Canal. International political prestige for the U.S. coincided with New York's economic rise. Reactionary tendencies towards isolationism, delayed U.S. involvement in World War I and undermined Wilson's objective of establishing a League Nations. Nonetheless, the involvement of the United States in full-scale international war became a national coming of age. Americans who had never departed from home shores had the shock of exposure, not only to combat and its attendant horrors, but also to European life-style, especially that of France. Subsequently, the twenties were a period of pull-back from Europe, compounded by disputes about repayment of war debts and suspicion of European politics.

In a way that paralleled the conflicted viewpoints of isolationism and internationalism, the art world of New York also bifurcated into two camps. Since the Armory show of 1913, a modernist group, gathered around photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, emulated the stylistic innovations of Matisse and Picasso. The Ashcan painters resisted this influence, maintaining their allegiance to representational art and in turn, spawned a tradition of New York realism which would ultimately constitute an urban manifestation of American regionalism. For New York painters, their specific subjects reflected the transition from the reckless boom of The Roaring Twenties under Mayor Jimmy Walker, to the devastating Crash of '29 and the Depression which soon followed. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also a New Yorker, orchestrated the Works Projects Administration in 1935 to counteract its effects. Through its programs, the unemployed were put back to work rebuilding New York's infrastructure, with new bridges, parkways, parks, housing developments, and other public facilities put in place. Artists, among them the second generation of New York realists, were also supported by work in W.P.A. art projects. Normalcy was all but fully re-established when New York celebrated with the World's Fair of 1939-40. Nazi aggression in Europe and the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, brought this immediate sense of renewed optimism to an end, and redirected the energies of America, and of New York, towards another larger purpose, and life as it had been known up to this point would never be the same.



1. Eric Homberger. The Historical Atlas of New York City. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1998. p.110.

2. Kenneth T. Jackson, editor. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New York and London: Yale University Press; the New York Historical Society, 1995. p. 372.

3. Homberger. p. 136.

4. Jackson. p. 594.

5. Jackson. pp. 1199, 1078.

6. Homberger. op. cit..

7. Bernie Bookbinder. City of the World, New York and Its People. New York: Abrams; A New York Newsday Book. p. 156.

These essays reprinted with permission of the Nassau County Museum of Art.

rev. 7/23/01

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/2/11

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