While he was a child growing up in Manhattan, author William Helmreich played a game with his father called “Last Stop.” They would select a subway line at random, ride it to the end, and explore a neighborhood they had never seen before. Decades later this inspired Helmreich to walk every block of all five boroughs, a journey that grew into his book The New York Nobody Knows.
Their game reminds me of George Bellows, an American “Ashcan School” artist who loved to walk the unfashionable streets of New York City “to see things, to feel things, and to dope them out for the public.” Bellows hoofed it over to the river wharfs, Lower East Side neighborhoods, and gritty construction sites of 1900s Manhattan.
His subject matter is rarely pretty, but the artist’s bravura handling of paint is unfailingly beautiful, especially his sophisticated use of complementary colors.
There is a constant and foolish demand that pictures all be pretty. As if Shakespeare had always gone around writing love sonnets.George Bellows, 1910
Bellows often walked east on 59th Street to watch the construction of the Queensboro Bridge. This legendary structure (featured in The Godfather, The Dark Knight Rises, Manhattan, Home Alone 2, Avengers Infinity War, and other hit movies) opened in 1909 at a cost of eighteen million dollars and fifty lives.
To make room for the bridge, hundreds of tenement buildings and single-family brownstones were demolished. The Lone Tenement depicts the eerie emptiness under the new bridge, where people huddle around a fire to keep warm while others play stickball. Bellows made the figures so small….so remote….their human stories shrink in significance. Near the fence, two dead trees point the finger of blame squarely at the Queensboro Bridge overhead.
Meanwhile, sunlight sparkles on the East River where a modern, steam-powered ship zips past a tired schooner in dry dock.
The last remaining row house stands alone in poignant isolation. Or does it? The scale of the building seems odd. Is it real? Or is it an architectural ghost urging us to remember the homes that were razed and the family interactions that once took place inside them?
Is this painting about a place? Or about people?
Half a century earlier, a French artist named Èdouard Manet watched Napoleon III demolish more than 27,000 buildings in Paris between 1852 and 1870. Some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods were destroyed in an ironic effort to make Paris a beacon of humanity.
All the rebuilding led to lots of moving. Families who had lived in Paris’s oldest neighborhoods for generations, who had all their friends and acquaintances there, loaded their belongings onto moving carts to be taken away.Stephane Kirkland, “Paris Reborn,” 2013
The transformation was a heavy-handed enterprise led by a civil engineer who saw Paris as a revenue base to be managed as an asset. Georges-Eugène Haussmann erased a much-loved Paris we will never know. He created a cleaner, more beautiful city at immense human cost.
In The Old Musician, Manet depicts some of the people who were pushed out of central Paris to the edge of town. The gray-haired man holding a violin is a popular street musician named Jean Lagrène, who in fact played the organ-grinder for tips. Occasionally he worked for Manet as an artist’s model, cashing in on his swarthy cheekbones and aquiline nose.
In the painting, Lagrène is entertaining people who clearly don’t have the money to tip him: a barefoot girl holding an infant, two urchins, and two street-corner philosophers.
Manet placed these people in an empty landscape to unite them by their bohemianism, not their physical setting. They represent human endurance in the face of rapid urbanization. In the background, a few dusty-gray strokes of paint represent the demolition of Paris.
Bellows and Manet liked to walk along city streets
The French citizenry had a word for men like them: flâneur. It derives from the Old Norse verb flana, which means to wander with no particular purpose. I’m reluctant to apply the term to Bellows and Manet because they walked with resolve.
The Lone Tenement and The Old Musician are serious paintings with a clear point of view. They record the human cost of ripping out neighborhoods in the name of progress, which is a zero-sum game.
George Bellows and Èdouard Manet never complained of artist’s block. They understood the world itself is never blocked. It spews ideas all the time.
I’m always amused by people who talk about a lack of subjects for painting. Wherever you go, subjects are waiting for you. The men of the docks, the children at the river’s edge, summer romance, amateur boxers, old people, young people, the beautiful, the ugly. You can learn more by painting one street scene than you can by working in an atelier for six months.
Some day, when I have the time, I may travel and see the world. But I do not expect to find better pictures than those that have been brought to me right here.George Bellows, 1917, 1920
Sadly, Bellows never got to see the world. His appendix ruptured, killing him at the age of forty-two and depriving us of a major painter at the height of his career.