The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were times of great change throughout Europe and America. Cities grew, became heavily industrialised, bred squalor among the poor, and offered grandeur to the rich.
Landscape painting became increasingly popular, and with it depiction of the urban landscape. Manet and the French Impressionists documented the transformation of Paris, and those American painters who trained in France often painted its landmarks, and favourite views of the bridges over the River Seine, for example.
This article, and its sequel, look at how a succession of major artists – Eakins, Chase, Henri, Cooper, and Bellows – painted the cities of the East Coast, between 1870 and 1914.
Thomas Eakins (1844–1916)
Trained in Paris in the Salon tradition, Eakins painted and taught in the cities of Philadelphia, Washington, and New York.
Eakins’ most frequent early depictions of Philadelphia appear confined to the Schuylkill River, as it passes through the city, in his series showing rowing on that river.
A little later, he painted this scene of Lafayette Park, Washington, D.C. (1877). Originally intended as part of the pleasure grounds around the Executive Mansion (the White House), Eakins allows only small fragments of buildings to peep through its dense trees.
His A May Morning in the Park (The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand) (1879-1880) shows Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, without giving the slightest glimpse of the city at all.
Although Eakins made copious oil sketches and photographs, and painted many scenes set in landscapes, he does not appear to have shown any interest in depicting the urban landscapes in which he lived and worked.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916)
Chase did not train in Paris, but in Munich. On his return to the US in 1878, he moved to New York, where he kept a studio for most of the rest of his life. From about 1886, he started painting outdoor scenes around Brooklyn and other parts of New York City, but ceased these by the time that he started teaching plein air painting at Shinnecock, Long Island, in 1891.
Over this period, Chase’s favourite scenes were those of the huge Prospect Park in Brooklyn. This was the next project for Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux after they had completed Manhattan’s Central Park. It was partially opened in 1867, but not completed until 1873.
Brooklyn Landscape (c 1886) shows a few buildings in the distance, which could as easily have been a more rural setting. The rough land in the foreground does at least have the appearance of urban waste ground, before the area became more densely developed.
In his waterfront view of The East River (c 1886), Chase avoids getting too close to the factories and warehouses seen on the skyline.
In Harbor Scene, Brooklyn Docks (1886), he follows the same compositional principle, even bringing in some grass and trees on the left.
Woman on a Dock (1886) appears to be the closest that Chase comes to a ‘real’ urban waterside, one dominated by manmade structures, although the buildings are here obscured by large ships.
Summertime (Pulling for Shore) (c 1886) returns to the security of trees and grass.
The buildings which Chase did paint were seldom those typical of cities: Boat House, Prospect Park (1887) is far from urban, and the scene almost empty of people.
A City Park (c 1887) shows the edge of a park, where there are more people, and some distant buildings, but like his earler waterfront views, they are kept sufficiently small as to avoid their dominance.
This view of Prospect Park, Park in Brooklyn (c 1887), follows the same rules.
Chase also painted a few works which take us into the backyards, including his Washing Day – A Backyard Reminiscence of Brooklyn (c 1887). Apart from the dominating washing, and the shrouded woman hanging it out, all we are shown are trees and grass.
In his The Open Air Breakfast (c 1888), the house in the background is cunningly disguised, so as to show some disembodied steps and a doorway.
Painted towards the end of this phase of his landscapes, his View from Central Park (1889) relegates the large buildings of Manhattan to its distant skyline.
Chase’s paintings of New York City are remarkable for his skill in turning each into a patch of green countryside, and carefully avoiding any passages which might look in the least bit urban.