The first truly American art emerged from New York’s Hudson River Valley in the nation’s nascent stages, typically featuring the grandeur of rolling hills and open spaces. By the 1920s, when more people in this country were living more in cities than on farms, the Hudson River artists again led the way in reflecting that historic shift from a country of landscapers to one of skyscrapers.
The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach celebrates that transformation in a special exhibition titled Industrial Sublime: Modernism and the Transformation of New York’s Rivers, 1900-1940. The show runs through June 22 and features more than 60 paintings and works on paper by some highly recognizable artists: George Bellows, Robert Henri, George Luks, Georgia O’Keefe, John Sloan and Sidney M. Wiggins.
“Artists are responding to the urbanization of the 1920s,” Ellen E. Roberts, the museum’s curator of American art, says of the works featured in the exhibition. “The cities are growing into a huge metropolis and the U.S. is growing into a world power.”
The show is sure to appeal to American history buffs as well as native New Yorkers. Veronica McNiff, who once volunteered as a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and now lives in North Palm Beach, liked the show so much that she came back for seconds in late March. “This exhibit blew me away for its quality,” she says, adding that she specifically returned to see the painting that her husband John liked so much he hypothetically would “gladly do a ‘smash and grab’ on.”
That painting is Colin Campbell Cooper’s Hudson River Waterfront, NYC (c. 1913-21), a study in soft pastels of smoke-billowing tugboats and ocean liners against skyscrapers including the Woolworth and Singer buildings.
Although a good many of South Florida’s residents may recognize first-hand the landmarks depicted in the paintings on display, you don’t have to be a transplanted New Yorker to enjoy the show. To help orient the visitor, the museum provides a map of New York’s waterways, complete with many of the bridges featured in the show.
Some images of those bridges are so subtle they appear as a mere hint in the shadows of night, with the cable lights blending into blocks of light from the windows of tall buildings across the city. Such is the case with Julian Alden Weir’s The Bridge: Nocturne (Nocturne: Queensboro Bridge) (1910), which provides just a whisper of the bridge in the enveloping darkness.
Other artists emblazoned the bridge across the canvas, as Glenn Coleman did with his Queensboro Bridge, East River (c. 1910). Here, the red bridge spans the entire width of the work, dominating the upper half of the painting and drawing immediate attention away from a crowd of river-watchers in the darkened foreground. Ralston Crawford appears to invite the viewer to cross his Whitestone Bridge (c. 1939-1940), an empty span that soars into the sky, cresting above the clouds. That painting speaks to the promise of the future and attainting greater heights through manmade works.
Other paintings in the show speak of the past and appear to be influenced by the French Impressionist movement, such as Colin Campbell Cooper’s Manhattan Bridge from Henry Street, Kurt Albrecht’s Untitled (Brooklyn Bridge) (c. 1920), Theodore Earl Butler’s Brooklyn Bridge (1900), and Ernest Lawson’s Brooklyn Bridge (c. 1917-20).
During this period, American Impressionism gave way to the Ashcan School. The movement’s spiritual leader, Robert Henri, “wanted art to be akin to journalism…paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse sh** and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter.” It was about as warmly received as the “heroin chic” image portrayed by Kate Moss during the 1990s that was reflective of nihilist attitudes and the growing drug abuse problem in this country.
Henri’s East River Embankment, Winter (1900), in leaden gray relieved only by smudges of dirty white snow and smoke, paints a bleak picture of the river. So, too, does George Luks’ Roundhouses at Highbridge (1909-10), with its plumes of smoke emanating directly skyward against a grim, dark backdrop.
George Bellows, who studied under Henri and is best known for his paintings of pugilists and pool players, portrayed the industrialization along the Hudson in a much subtler manner. At first glance, his Winter Afternoon (1909), appears to be a bucolic riverside setting, with snow so luminous it melts the heart. But the painting, which is in the museum’s permanent collection, actually serves as the artist’s commentary on impending industrialization of the waterfront, curator Roberts points out. At the time, development was sprouting on the Palisades just across the river from Manhanttan, and there was much debate about whether to pursue development on Manhattan’s waterfronts or conserve them as parks.
In a sense, the Bellows painting is the “before picture,” a way of preserving the area’s natural state, at least on canvas. He hints at the advancing industrial revolution with a pedestrian path that draws the viewer to the water, where a lone boat steams along.
The painting appears in a gallery called the “Contested Waterway” that is devoted to the tension between environmentalists and industrialists. Also here is Van Dearing Perrine’s Palisades (1906) oil painting that imbues the viewer with the majesty of the area. Painted from a vantage that forces the viewer to look up in awe, it presages an approach that future painters would use for skyscrapers. Perrine was actually reflecting his home, as he lived in a shack amid the rocky outcroppings of the Palisades.
His work obviously had some effect on those who saw it. “Teddy Roosevelt bought one of Perrine’s paintings and was governor (of New York) when they began the process of saving the Palisades,” Roberts says. Perhaps as a memory of that effort, Roosevelt displayed another of Perrine’s paintings, The Palisades in the White House.
The next two galleries in the exhibit feature modern and precisionist paintings. Georgia O’Keefe’s East River From the Shelton (East River No. 1) (c. 1927-28) shows a sun that appears as a giant eye looking down on a factory, as viewed from her studio on the 13th floor of the Shelton Hotel. Standouts among the precisionist paintings, with their crisp geometric shapes, are George Ault’s From Brooklyn Heights (c.1925-28) and Glenn Coleman’s Empire State Building (1930-32). Coleman painted a Navy blimp near the observation tower, perhaps to depict unrealized aspirations of an airship docking station atop the building.
The last gallery in the exhibition deals with Depression-era New York. One painting in particular highlights the negative effects of urbanization without proper planning. Aaron Douglas’ Triborough Bridge (1936) is framed by the cross-hatching of an overpass trestle. Beneath the overpass is a small park with bare, spindly trees and several people hunched over on benches that overlook various bridges and roads.
Taken as a whole, the exhibit tells the story not only of New York, but of the nation, as it emerges into a superpower, with bridges that not only span the Hudson and other New York waterways, but also make technological leaps.
“The show begins with a lot of bridges and gives way to plenty of skyscrapers,” Roberts says.
It was those skyscrapers that helped provide the country’s towering image abroad and its can-do attitude at home. The Norton exhibit captures that attitude with its expanses of the New York skyline and in many ways epitomizes the sentiment of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect who designed one of New York’s most recognizable skyscrapers, the Flatiron Building.
“Make no little plans,” Burnham said. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”