By Carter B. Horsley
New York has relatively few "squares" and of them Washington Square at the foot of Fifth Avenue is the most revered because of its heritage in the mid- and late-19th Century as the city's finest residential address and because of its mid-20th Century heritage as the playground of "artsy" Greenwich Village and the city's center of beatniks.
It is, of course, not a true "square," but a rectangular park with a center circular fountain and it is the size of four city blocks. Other famous "squares" in the city include Union Square, Times Square, Herald Square Gramercy Park and Stuyvesant Park and they and Washington Square have never truly served as a "town" square in the European sense of a city's vibrant center of activity, although Washington Square comes closet to that in large part because it has long been surrounded by many "facilities" of New York University.
This exhibition at Berry-Hill Galleries celebrates the park's artistic history, but its fine catalogue, written by Bruce Weber, also provides a superb and fascinating urban history.
William Glackens (1870-1938), Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Everett Shinn (1876-1953) are the best-known stars of the show, but its knockout, "must-see" paintings are by some lesser-known artists such as Guy Pène du Bois (1884-1958), Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938), Glenn O. Coleman (1887-1932) and Frank Arthur Nankivell (1869-1959).
Nankivell's "Italian Parade in Washington Square," shown at the top of this article, is a sensational oil on canvas, 23 by 28 1/2 inches, that was painted circa 1915-1920 and combines the Cubist experimentation of Arthur B. Davies, the synchronism of Arthur B. Carles and the dynamism of the Italian Futurists. It is without question the finest painting in the exhibition and a masterpiece of American modernism.
As this is an historical exhibition that covers a period of 75 years, there are a lot of different artistic styles on view, but it is the more abstract works, like the Nankivell, that are the most striking "eye-openers."
The catalogue essay by Bruce Weber provides the following commentary about Nankivell:
"The Australian-born Frank Arthur Nankivell was active primarily as a print-maker, but also worked as a painter and illustrator. He is best remembered today for his efforts as a printer of etchings by Arthur B. Davies and Childe Hassam, and for his involvement with the organization of the Armory Show. About 1910 he shared a studio with Walt Kuhn on 14th Street. Kuhn introduced Nankivell to Davies, and through this connection became a member of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors and served on the Committee on Domestic Exhibits for the Armory Show. The experience inspired Nankivell to adopt a modernist aesthetic. Italian Parade in Washington Squaredates from about 1915 and features a view probably from 63 Washington Square South, where he had a studio about this time. The painting reflects the influence of Davies's decorative approach to Cubism. Following Davies's example, Nankivell breaks up the surface into small planes of contrasting colors, which are tied together by the artist's precisely controlled organization of pictorial rhythms. In later years, Nankivell created animated cartoons, produced the first completely natural-color motion picture, and served as a printer for the Graphics Arts Division of the Federal Art Project. Nankivell and his daughter Edith also created etchings of Washington Square."
Arthur B. Davies was a member of the "Ash-can School" of painters that flourished at the start of the 20th Century in depicting urban scenes with considerable flair under the leadership and influence of Robert Henri. Davies's oeuvre, however, differed considerably from his fellow Ash-Can artists such as Glackens, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, Ernst Lawson and George Luks, all of whom shared a rather slap-dash style in their early works. Much of Davies's early work was influenced by the Classicism of artists like Puvis de Chavannes, the tonal poetry of Whistler and later by the bold departures of the Cubists. His best late, Cubist-inspired works were considerably more colorful than his Parisian counterparts in general and he retained a lyricism from his earlier works that is still under-appreciated. (The other member of the Ash-Can School, Maurice Prendergast, is best-known for his rich, almost tapestry-like works that combine a bold Impressionism and Fauvism, and his work is considered more decorative and bucolic in general than the urban scenes favored by most of the "school.")
Despite its obvious influences, Nankivell's painting is a stunning example of a great work that may not have been bereft of influences but is nonetheless remarkably dynamic and vigorous.
The catalogue includes many 47 color reproductions of works in the exhibition and 41 black-and-white productions of works not in the exhibition but related to the show's theme. One of the more fascinating black-and-white reproductions is "Bus View," a 34-by-25-inch oil on canvas by Glen O. Coleman (1877-1932). The location of the painting is unknown but it is, according to Mr. Weber's essay, "one of a group of pictures - which Coleman referred to as 'arrangements' - in which the artist attempted to combine aspects of collage, Futurism, Surrealism, and photomontage." The painting, executed circa 1930, shows a tunnel, a train track, bus, group of houses, the Washington Arch, and two partial views of the recently erected residential skyscraper at One Fifth Avenue.
Oscar Bluemner's "Circles of Washington Square," shown above, may have been inspired, the catalogue notes, by Coleman's Bus View: "The works share compositional similarities and transform No. 1 Fifth Avenue into something fantastic and surreal. Circles of Washington Square is the largest painting in Bluemner's oeuvre and was created in January 1935 in the midtown studio of his friend and patron Katherine Hochfield. It is an oil on canvas, 55 1/6 by 35 inches and was executed in 1935. The following month it was on view around the corner from the Park at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in its Abstract Painting in America exhibition, the very first museum showing dedicated to American abstract art. Bluemner authority Jeffrey Russell Hayes has conjectured that this extremely rare treatment by the artist of an urban subject may have been created with the Whitney 'crowd' in mind. This included the recently deceased Coleman and such Precisionist artists as Charles Demuth."
Bluemner is best known for his very vibrant rural landscapes and this painting is one of the highlights of this exhibition and truly stunning and monumental and a great icon of the skyscraper age.
The essay by Mr. Weber provides the following commentary about 1 Fifth Avenue:
"In the late 1920s and 1930s, a number of painters, photographers, and print makers created images that prominently feature the 28-story apartment house, designed by the architectural firm of Helme & Corbett in association with Sugarman & Berge, and completed in 1927. The building was meant to give the impression of a free-standing tower rising from Washington Square Park in one continuous thrust to a crown of picturesque penthouses and chimney stacks. Its creation followed a 1916 Zoning Resolution which provided the legislative framework for the rapid development of tall commercial and residential towers along Fifth Avenue. After World War I, lower Fifth Avenue was remade into a line of tall apartment houses, and by 1930 there were no private houses on the lower end of the avenue. Paintings in this exhibition by Joseph Lenhard and Martin Lewis bear witness to this transformation. The skyscraper of 1927 replaced four row houses, including numbers 1 and 3 Fifth Avenue, which had housed Mrs. Lucy's Green's School for Girls since 1835. No. 1 Fifth Avenue was generally admired by architectural critics of the period, but its arrival heralded the sometimes painful architectural changes that were being wrought in the old precinct of Washington Square. Architectural critic Lewis Mumford praised the structure in The New Yorker: 'There is a real kick in this super-castle, the walls of which recede in all manner of clever ways to a fascinating center tower. There are battlements, machiolations, pointed buttresses and various medieval suggestions, yet this is thoroughly modern architecture.No. 1 Fifth Avenue also served as the impetus for social critic Edmund Wilson's scathing article 'The Crushing of Washington Square,' which appeared in The New Republic: 'The big red houses of the north and west sides had already been gutted of their grandeurs and crammed with economized cells, the cubbyholes of modern apartments, and the sooty peeling fronts of the south side, with their air of romance and mystery, had already been replaced by fresh arty grays and pinks.And now, in the short months of summer, there have been erected on lower Fifth Avenue two monstrous apartment houses - one just south of the Brevoort Hotel [No. 1 Fifth Avenue] and the other between Tenth and Eleventh Streets. They loom over the village like mountains, and they have already changed its proportions. Their effect is to crush, in the Washington Arch and in the row of red facades behind it, whatever these had formerly kept of chaste elegance and decorous pride. The whole village seems now merely a base for these cubic apartment buildings. Such good quality as still lingered here along with the low roofs of the provincial town has thus far been rendered insignificant: it is impossible to get away from these huge coarse and swollen mounts - blunt, clumsy, bleaching the sunlight with their dismal pale yellow sides and stamping down both the old formal square and the newer Bohemian refuge.'"
1 Fifth Avenue is widely regarded as a very important early Art Deco skyscraper and some critics have praised its trompe-l'oeil treatment of some piers and its chamfered corners. As the tallest structure by far in Greenwich Village, dwarfing the great Victorian-style Jefferson Market Court House nearby at 10th Street and Sixth Avenue (now the Avenue of the Americas), the skyscraper actually does not overwhelm Washington Arch because it rises in setbacks and, more importantly, because, despite its address, it is half a block away from the park at Washington Square because the great houses on the north side are separated from it by Washington Mews.
The other building that Wilson presumably was referring to is the smaller but more elegant apartment house at 40 Fifth Avenue just to the north of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension and across the street from an impressive Presbyterian Church that has a block-wide garden on the avenue.
The loss of the Brevoort Hotel just to the north of 1 Fifth Avenue across 8th Street and of the low-rise buildings across the avenue from it would, in fact, be far more damaging to the ambience of the park as they typical, large, white and beige brick apartment houses of little architectural distinction whose masses and lack of detailing did more to "squash" this elegant enclave than the "crushing" towers cited by Wilson. While the north side of Washington Square was notable for the very fine Greek Revival townhouses, the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Street blocks between Fifth and Sixth Avenues were, and still are, extremely attractive and are widely considerable among the prettiest in the city. While it is true that the "high-rise" stretch of what is known now as Lower Fifth Avenue up to 13th Street significantly changed the urban scale, it also happens to be one of the city's nicest and most impressive such stretch, fully the equal of Park or West End Avenue, especially after the construction of the Empire State Building a mile or so to the north became such a major and much loved landmark.
From south of the Washington Arch, the view to the north is extremely impressive and 1 Fifth Avenue does not detract from the stately townhouses between Fifth Avenue and University Place, but actually helps focus attention on them. One could well argue that this skyscraper was very important in stabilizing Greenwich Village but giving it a major new and handsome landmark that did not result in the destruction of the area's great sidestreets and led to the creation of the very impressive phalanx of apartment buildings on Lower Fifth Avenue. Needless to say, the city was decades away from creating a landmarks protection agency at the time of its creation and civic activists were more concerned with economic or international issues than historic preservation at the time.
"In the late 1920s, Glen O. Coleman pictured the Square in oil, tempera, gouache, and watercolor," the catalogue essay observed. "At this time," it continued, "he moved away from his realistic and highly nostalgic depictions of lower Manhattan's older dwellings, stores, and factories to create more abstract compositions in which he contrasted the older and newer architecture of the city and sought to convey a sense of what he felt was New York's increasing impersonality. Coleman commented on his attitude toward the city's architecture: 'I have always liked to paint streets.stained streetsdecrepit housesthe once affluent street shabby and down at the heel. Sometimes it comes backlike Minetta Lane. The new generation of skyscrapers hovers over the older streets, detached, abstract, a little respectful. This is to me the most fascinating part of the American scene, the new York streets and that is why I paint them.' In The Arch, Coleman worked from an elevated vantage point and pictured the park as devoid of almost all human activity. His monochromatic color scheme harks back to Analytic Cubism, while its overall sense of weight and permanence recalls the art of the Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne. Coleman eliminated certain elements, such as the fountain at the center of the park, and rounded and flattened the foreground areas of lawn and pathway. The arch, the Rhinelander mansion, and the apartment buildings in the background are treated as impersonal, geometric forms."
In The Arch, shown above, the large building in the left background is the Fifth Avenue Hotel, which had a very large and impressive lobby and ballroom on the northwest corner at Ninth Street and it would eventually be converted to apartments. It is a very good picture because it conveys a great sense of structure and it is indeed interesting that Coleman chose to depict the scene without people, which gives it a de Chirico-esque feeling of surrealism, although Coleman's palette is much warmer and there is considerable texture.
Another superb work in the exhibition is "Chess Tables, Washington Square," by Guy Pène du Bois who studied with Hopper under Robert Henri at the New York School of Art. Pène du Bois published a monograph on Hopper in 1931 and lived close to the park until his death in 1959. He lived in the building where I grew up at 20 West 10th Street, which also housed such artists as Hugh Ferris, Louis Bouché and Frederick MacMonnies.
"Chess Tables, Washington Square," was executed by Pène du Bois, who was also an important and influential art critic, about 1950. An oil on canvas, it measures 40 by 30 1/8 inches. The catalogue states that it "is the only easel painting Pène du Bois is known to have painted of the Square. "The work relates to a group of drawings he created of people milling about the chess tables at the southeast corner of the park. Some of the drawings were made from a window of the Holley Hotel at 32 Washington Square West. Beginning in the 1940s, the artist's works became dreamier, moodier, and more evocative. Pène du Bois authority Betsy Fahlman has noted that now 'forms were no longer materialized and color [was] less solidmore loosely brushed [and] suffused with a mysterious light,'" the catalogue essay continued.
Pène du Bois is best known for his rather sardonic paintings of well-dressed figures with ovoid faces, and this somber, mysterious painting wonderfully catches the "night" and is one of his best works even if the specificity of location is not highly evident.
As the central open space of Greenwich Village, the Square had a great deal of light and the exhibition has a very fine painting by Edward Hopper that shows it in early evening looking from an elevated position at the northeast end of the park towards the south. Entitled "November, Washington Square," it shows the wonderful tower of the Judson Memorial Church, which dominated the square long before 1 Fifth Avenue, but Hopper has chosen the eliminate the Arch in this work, although he does show part of the park's circular fountain. The painting, which is shown below, was executed in 1932 and 1959 and is a 34 1/8-by-50 1/4-inch oil on canvas that is in the collection of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Sterling Morton to the Preston Morton Collection.
The catalogue essay provides the following commentary about Hopper:
"From December 1913 until his death in May 1965, Edward Hopper lived at 3 Washington Square North. His early neighbors included Collin Cruickshank and Walter Tittle, with whom he had attended art school. At first he lived in a studio apartment on the fourth floor of the rear building on the property, which was entered from Washington Mews. His wife Josephine Nivison joined him there after they were married in 1924. In November 1932 they moved into a brighter space on the fourth floor of the studio building that faced Washington Square Park, which included two rooms overlooking the Square. The larger front room became Hopper's studio. The couple remained in the building for many years, despite Spartan living conditions: they shared a bathroom with neighbors until 1941 and did not have central heating until 1959. New York University sought unsuccessfully to evict Hopper and his fellow tenants in late 1946. Despite Hopper's long settlement on Washington Square, he depicted the neighborhood only rarely. Between 1926 and 1932, he painted an oil and three watercolorsfeaturing the chimney pots and skylights on his own roof. In November 1932 he celebrated his liberation from the rear studio by creating a watercolor and charcoal drawing.and oil paintinglooking out across the Square toward Judson Memorial church. Hopper authority Gail Levin has noted that the artist treasured the new 'sense of opening - of openness just outside, that he could look out to, no matter how small his own interior space might be.' Typical of Hopper's approach, in the oil he gives no indication of the bustling activity associated with life on the Square, projecting instead a mood of solitude and silence. Hopper's study of the art of Edgar Degas in the 1920s led him to adopt unusual perspectives and angles of vision. As in some of his most evocative city pictures, Hopper pictures a dramatic sky streaked with color hovering about a moody and desolate landscape."
The catalogue reproduces in black-and-white a really stunning watercolor over charcoal on paper by Hopper, entitled "Roofs, Washington Square," that the artist executed in 1926 and which is in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. James H. Beal. The work, shown above, measures 13 7/8 by 19 7/8 inches and depicts the typical roof scenes of many of the neighborhood's townhouses on the sidestreets. It is not included in the exhibition.
A large, four-panel painted screen by William C. Palmer, entitled "Washington Square, New York," is another example in the exhibition of artist tinkering with reality. According to the catalogue, Palmer "changed the design of the park to suit" his "fantasy" of the park as an "idyllic urban oasis." Palmer, the essay continued, moved the Holley monument, the Ladies' Cottage, and the grassy area in the foreground closer to the fountain," designed a new pavement, and shifted the Judson Memorial church to the north side of the park. He began the screen in 1928 and in 1932 added the recently completed Empire State Building in the background.
Artists were not the only ones who envisioned changes in the park's configurations. In the 1930s, Robert Moses proposed rearranging the park to permit Fifth Avenue road traffic to continue through the park to West Broadway. The catalogue essay quotes a letter by John Goodrum Miller to The New York Times in which he asked if Moses would "put bowling alleys in the Parthenon, a swimming tank on Bunker Hill or a gymnasium in the Lincoln Memorial."
In 1932, the Washington Square Outdoor Art Show was organized to help artists. It was conceived by artist Vernon Carroll Porter as an annual spring and fall exhibition and all artists of the region were welcome to exhibit without charge and allocated six feet of space. The catalogue essay noted that "originally the show occupied the southand west sides of the Square and extended to Thompson, Sullivan and MacDougal Streets , and to Washington Place and Waverly Place.For the first four years, spaces were claimed on a first come, first served bases.In later years, spaces were chosen by lot.Of the 275 artists who entrolled for the first exhibit in the spring of 1932, about one fourth were from the Village and its immediate environs. Among the area artists who showed that spring were Cecil D. Bell, David Burliuk, Burgoyne Diller, Alice Neel and Francis Criss.In the late 1940s, under the leadership of artist Nell Boardman and through the promotional efforts of the weekly newspaper The Villager, the Washington Square Outdoor Art Show began to expand farther away from the park until it was spread out more than 20 blocks. During the 1950s it began the largest outdoor art exhibit in the country, with as many as 1,200 artists showing their work. By that time artistic standards were not as high, and the organizers put more emphasis on making a substantial profit. The outdoor art show is still held every spring and fall; however, artists are now selected by jury, and they pay a fee to exhibit."
In 1949, Columbia University reclaimed a lease from Albert Strunsky, the landlord of several "studio" buildings on the south side of the Square between MacDougal and Sullivan Streets and Columbia sold the property to New York University that erected its law school on the site in the early 1950s. Four studio apartment buildings also on the south side of the park were leveled in 1948 and were replaced by the Loeb Student Center of New York University that is now being replaced by a new university building.
"The destruction of the studio buildings, sometimes referred to as 'Genius row,' led Harold M. Fleming, chairman of the Save Washington Square Committee, to remark that 'the beginning of the end' of a famous era in New York's history was at hand. 'It looks like the old Washington Square, from an artist's viewpoint is going down like a row of dominoes - from east to west,'" the catalogue essay noted.
As a child in the 1940s, I played in the sandboxes and on the see-saws in the children's playground in the northeast part of the park, and the park then was an elegant and not terribly crowded oasis. In the mid-1950s, Robert Moses again focused on the Square, this time proposing to create a curved and sunken four-lane highway through the middle of the park with a pedestrian bridge in the center. Community activists protested and were eventually successfully in blocking the plan.
In 1960 and 1961, I attended New York University, which then was only a fraction of the size it physically is today. In 1960, I escorted John F. Kennedy, then running for President, onto the balcony of the Loeb Student Center to address a rally. The park then was always full of folksingers, vagabonds, beatniks and neighborhood elderly and very young many of whom splashed about in the central circular fountain, access to which was made easier by the decision about that time to discontinue using the surrounding area as a depot for Fifth Avenue buses. In just another couple of years, drug use would explode in the city and the park would become a major center for drug sellers and users, many from outside the neighborhood. Joggers would not emerge for more than another decade or so. "A perpetual carnival atmosphere lingers today, as Washington Square continues to be the most heavily trafficked park in New York City," according to the catalogue essay.
During the Depression such artists as Raphael Soyer and Ben Shahn depicted the park's people. Shahn took a series of photographs of them with a right-angle viewfinder to capture them "unawares," the essay noted.
Hippies staked out a large claim to the park, but they were not the only ones. Arthur Fellig, the photographer known as Weegee (1899-1968), frequently photographed people in the park starting in the 1940s and Diane Arbus (1923-1971), another photographer, concentrated much of work on the park in the 1960's.
"In 1965," the catalogue essay wrote, "Arbus became fascinated by the sense of territoriality the park engendered. She entered the complicated social structure that existed there in order to become closer to the people she photographed.This intimacy is reflected in the naturalness, directness, and empathy of her portraits. She wrote of the experience: 'I remember one summer I worked a lot in Washington Square ParkThe park was divided. It has these walks, sort of like a sunburst, and there were these territories staked out. They were young hippie junkies down one row. There were lesbians down another, really tough amazingly hard-core lesbians. And in the middle were the winos. They were like the first echelon and the girls who came from the Bronx to become hippies would have to sleep with the winos to get to sit on the other part with the junkie hippies. It was really remarkable. And I found it very scary. I mean I could become a nudist. I could become a million things. But I could never become that, whatever all those people were.I got a to know a few of them. I hung around a lot. They were a lot like sculptures in a funny way."
The catalogue reproduces several fine photographs by Weegee and Arbus as well as several great and famous photographs by André Kertész (1894-1985) that were taken from his 12th floor apartment at 2 Fifth Avenue and that are probably the most famous images of the park. "Washington Square with Arch", shown above, is one of his finest depictions of the park and is the frontispiece of the catalogue. The gelatin silver print measures 10 by 8 inches and was taken in 1966 but printed later.
The catalogue also includes a fabulous quotation from novelist Cynthia Ozick describing the people in the park that conjures Boschian and Brueghelesque scenes and ends stating "The toilet paper rolls are the temple columns of this sacred grove."
The essay ends on a more upbeat note and maintained that the Square is enjoying another, calmer Renaissance: "as much as it has changed, Washington Square continues to maintain a special dignity, the monumental dignity of having been there and survived and prospered."
"Before Manhattan was settled by the Dutch and then English, the area now occupied by Washington Square Park," Mr. Weber wrote in his essay, "was a marshy plot traversed by a meandering spring variously called Minetta Water or Minetta Brook. Local Native Americans camped and fished there, and it was home to wild geese, foxes, rabbits, ducks, and partridges. In the mid seventeenth century, Dutch burghers freed a group of Angolan blacks who had served two decades as slaves and temporarily granted them the otherwise undesirable marsh for farming.by the mid-eighteenth century, under the English regime, the marsh had become part of the adjacent Greenwich Village farmlands of Elbert Herring, Colonel William S. Smith, and Sir Peter Warren.In 1797, New York City fathers purchased some land from the Herring and Smith families, then drained the march to convert the plot into a potter's field for the burial of paupers, criminals, and the victims of cholera and yellow fever epidemics.Part of the land was also used as a burial ground for members of the Zion African church and possibly for the Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in New York.It was also used for public executions, various other public acts of punishment, and, occasionally, for the fighting of duels.In 1826, the plot was closed to further internments and rededicated as a public square and military parade ground..by the summer of 1827, eight Federal-style houses were built on the street that bordered the south side of the park.the city's first terrace row..the development on the south side of the park was followed in 1828 by a Federal mansion built by George Pixton Rogers at 20 Washington Square North.In 1840, Rogers was joined the neighborhood by his sister Mary and her husband William Christopher Rhinelander, who moved into 14 Washington Square North.From the mid 1830s through the 1850s, row houses were built on the west side of Washington Square North for such successful merchants as Gardiner Green Howland (no. 17), James Walsh (no. 18), Edward C. Biddle (no. 19), James DePeyster Ogden (no. 16, and the prominent attorney Edmund Wilkes (no. 22). James Walsh's wife, Elizabeth, was the maternal grandmother of the novelist Henry James, whose memories of childhood visits to his grandparents' home and his experience of growing up nearby at 112 Washington Place contributed to his portrait of the area in his story of love betrayed and quietly avenged, Washington Square.In 1832, John Johnston, James Boorman and John Morrison leased building lots along Washington Square North, between Fifth Avenue and the present-day University Place.At Johnston's instigation, in 1833, they developed a remarkably uniform and complimentary row of houses facing the parade ground. These 13 houses became known as Therowand are today considered among the finest Greek revival dwellings in New York.The architect of The Row is believed to have been the builder Samuel Thomson or Martin E. Thompson, who adopted the Greek revival style in the mid 1820s when he formed a brief partnership with Ithiel Town.The houseshave high stoops with white marble balustrades leading to deeply recessed doorways frame by fluted Doric or Ionic columns.Each house has a 12-foot-deep front yard enclosed by a continuous wrought-iron fence with double entrance gates"
New York University was incorporated in 1831 as a nonsectarian "alternative to the more conservative Columbia University, affiliated with the Episcopal Church and, at the time, located downtown," Mr. Weber wrote. Its first building was a four-story, twin-towered, marble structure on the east side of the park just to the north of the twin-towered South Dutch Methodist Church, erected in 1840 and designed by Minard Lafever. The catalogue reproduces in black-and-white a great oil painting by Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872), entitled "Allegorical Landscape with New York University," collection of the New York Historical Society, that shows the N.Y.U. building facing a large lagoon on the other side of which is a mountain and castle.
The N.Y.U. building was opened in 1835 and was designed by James H. Dakin and Andrew Jackson Downing and became the "first important example of the English Collegiate Gothic style created in America," Mr. Weber continued, adding that "to fill its space and replenish its coffers, the university rented out space to such organizations as the American Institute of Architects, the American Geographic Society, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the New York Historical Society.More than 60 artists had studio apartments in the building over the course of its almost 60-year existence, including Samuel F. B. Morse, Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Daniel Huntington, Thomas Addison Richards, John Frederick Kensett, A. D. Shattuck, Edwin Austin Abbey, James Smillie and Cephas G. Thompson.While living at the University Building, Morse perfected the telegraph, sending out the first telegraph message in an 1838 classroom demonstration. In 1840, the artist and John William Draper of the university's science department opened one of the country's first photographic studios, located on the roof of the University Building." The University Building was demolished in 1894 after the university decided to move to the Bronx, a plan that was, however, soon abandoned and the university then used the top three floors of the 10-story building that had been constructed on the site for the American Book Company and which is now the institution's Main Building.
"In 1849, an iron railing was erected around the park and, three years later, a fountain was installed in the center of the parade ground. The fountain was 100 feet in diameter," Mr. Weber wrote.
The park was redesigned in the early 1870's as a more rustic and informal park. Around this time, businesses were beginning to encroach into the area as well as many immigrants: Irish and Germans in the 1850s and 1860s, French in the 1870s, and Italians in the 1880s and 1890s. "In 1879, the merchant Lucius Tuckerman hired the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and Bigelow to design an apartment house on the east side of the park exclusively for bachelors. The six-story building, with its face of red brick and touches of light stone trim, was named after Benedick, the confirmed bachelor in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Among the many artists who rented studio apartments there were Albert Pinkham Ryder, Winslow Homer, John La Farge, Julian Alden Weir, Robert Frederick Blum, and George Willoughby Maynard," Mr. Weber wrote.
In 1884, the building at 3 Washington Square North was renamed the "Studio Building" and remodeled in the Queen Anne Style and it was also expanded and Mr. Weber reported that "among the earliest tenants were Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Will H. Low, E. L. Henry, Rosalie Gill and Sarah Dodgson," adding that "in the twentieth century, many artists would live there, including William Glackens, Rockwell Kent, Ernest Lawson, Walter Pach, and Edward Hopper. The writers John Dos Passos and Edmund Wilson resided there for a period as well."
Interestingly, images of the Square by such famous artists as Ryder, Homer, Johnson, Dewing, Kensett, Blum and Edward Lamson Henry have not surfaced and it was not really the subject of many art works until the creation of the Washington Arch in the early 1890s.
"The first incarnation of the monument that today defines Washington Square Park was strictly temporary," observed Mr. Weber, who provides the following history:
"During April 29-May 1, 1889, the city sponsored a three-day festival to commemorate George Washington's inauguration, which had taken place on the site of the Sub-Treasury building at Wall and Broad streets 100 years earlier.William Rhinelander Stewart, resident of 17 Washington Square North, came up with the idea of creating a triumphal arch to heighten the commemorative drama of the parade. He obtained designs from the preeminent society architect Stanford White, who donated his work without charge.Constructed of wood staff - a conglomeration of plaster and wood fiber - it was painted ivory and ornamented with papier-maché garlands and laurel wreaths.The temporary arch was the most lauded feature of the pageant honoring Washington's inauguration, and demand immediately arose to make it a permanent fixture of Washington Square Park.This time, however, raising funds was no easy matter.Ultimately, the arch cost $134,00 to erect, with about $26,000 coming from major donors and the rest from ordinary New Yorkers contributing gifts of $100 or less." White's original design called for the arch to be flanked on its west and east sides by a free-standing Corinthian column capped by perched eagles on bronze globes but not enough money was raised for the columns and indeed sculpture on the arch would not be installed until World War I, Mr. Weber wrote.
"The Washington Arch was immediately regarded as the gateway to Fifth Avenue. Its creation signaled the acceptance of a new standard of classical architectural beauty in America, and in the coming years it was recognized as a herald of the city Beautiful Movement in New York. For a discriminating minority, however, the arch masked deeper conflicts in the neighborhood. Henry James saw the arch as a lonesome guardian of the traditional dignity, stature, and values of Washington Square North and Fifth Avenue. For him it was an unfortunate witness to the cultural decline and increased ethnic tensions in the Washington Square area.Washington Arch committee chairman Henry G. Marquand had sought to ally anxieties over the changing character of the neighborhood by stirring feelings of patriotic, civic and artistic pride.It was common in the early 1890s to compare and even equate the Washington Arch with Jean-Francis Thérèse Chalgrin's grand triumphal structure [the Arc de Triomphe in Paris], which Napoleon commissioned in 1806 to celebrate the glory of the French Army.
One of the most famous paintings of the arch is by Childe Hassam (1859-1945). Entitled "Washington Arch, Spring," it was executed circa 1893 and is in The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and is illustrated in black-and-white in the catalogue although it is not included in the exhibition. The catalogue notes that "A View of Washington Square, New York" by Paul Cornoyer (1864-1923) in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur G. Altschul and reproduced in black-and-white in the catalogue, "may have been inspired by Hassam's Washington Arch, Spring." Another Cornoyer painting, "Washington Square," is included in the exhibition. Painted in 1900, the 26-by-32-inch oil on canvas, shown above, it is one of the best in the show and is in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Farrow Harrow.
Everett Shinn and William Glackens are two Ash-Can School artists who depicted the Square often. Shinn lived at 112 Waverly Place from 1902 to 1912 and the Arch figures in many of his works. Mr. Weber wrote that "it is intriguing to consider Shinn's depictions of the structure as a kind of tribute to his comrade and supporter Stanford White," adding that "the men developed a friendship after meeting in 1900 at the salon of the pioneering interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe."
White not only designed the Arch but also the Judson Memorial Church on the south side of the park. It was erected in 1892 in a style reminiscent of the Romanesque basilicas of Roma with an amber-terracotta façade and a 10-story campanile, the design of which, Mr. Weber wrote, "was adapted from the Moorish cathedrals of Spain." The church has twelve stained-glass windows by John La Farge.
From 1932-34, William Glackens shared a studio at 62 Washington Square North with Ernest Lawson. Glackens also lived in various other buildings on the park from 1904 to 1907 and from 1911 to 1919 including 50 Washington Square North where Maurice and Charles Prendergast lived on the floor above him. One of the exhibition's most striking works is "Children - Washington Square (Decorative), shown above, that dates from around the time the Prendergast brothers arrived on the square. It was painted circa 1914 and the oil on canvas measures 25 by 30 inches and is in The Forbes Magazine collection in New York.
The catalogue provides the following commentary on this work:
This unusual canvas may have been inspired by Charles Prendergast's panel paintings, in which he assimilated the influence of Asian art and decoration, Egyptian frescoes, Persian and Indian minatures, Greek vase panting, and early Italian panel paintings. In keeping with Charles's images, this work conveys an innocent, childlike quality, and evokes an idyllic, enchanged, magical world. Here Glackens worked entirely from his imagination, abandoning his usual pictorial conventions, to create a lively and colorful decorative image that resembles a picture by a child.'
In contrast with many of the above cited works, Glackens's paintings of the Square are generally full of life. "Glackens's pictures of the Square include the Italian-Americans of the neighborhood and acknowledge Washington Square as the borderline between the stately homes on Washington Square North and the immigrant community to the south," Mr. Weber observed. The exhibition has many fine paintings by Glackens including "Italo-American Celebration, Washington Square," shown above. The 25 3/4-by-32-inch oil on canvas was painted about 1909 and is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Another famous member of the Ash-Can School was John Sloan who lived at 88 Washington Place from 1916 to 1926 where in 1917 he made a famous etching, "Arch Conspirators," in which he depicts himself and other Villagers including Marcel Duchamp gathering atop the Arch to declare Greenwich Village a free and independent nation.
The exhibition includes three good paintings by Sloan, "Wet Night, Washington Square," "My Front Yard (Flower Bed, Washington Square) and "Looking out on Washington Square" both from the Delaware Art Museum, Gift of the John Sloan Trust, and "My Front Yard (Flower Bed, Washington Square," on loan from the Friends of Art and Preservation in Embassies Millennium, Gift to the Nation, Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, courtesy of the John Sloan Trust at the Delaware Art Museum.
In 1914, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney formed the Studio club and began holding exhibitions of American Art at her studio on MacDougal Alley and in 1931 she moved into a very handsome building on the south side of 8th Street just west of Fifth Avenue and that became the Whitney Museum of American Art and would remain there until 1949 when it moved uptown.
The exhibition and Mr. Weber's offer fine perspectives on what Mr. Weber describes as an "extraordinary plot of Urban America," nicely balancing its earthy, then genteel, then raucous history with its phenomenal importance to many of America's greatest artists. One almost wishes the exhibition were larger and one certainly longs to see how some of the famous artists whose work is not included in the exhibition but who lived around the Square would have treated it, if in fact they ever did, such as Albert Pinkham Ryder, Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson and Thomas Wilmer Dewing, none of whom, of course, were known to have painted many urban scenes.
New York City has few formal "gateways": the Brooklyn and Queensborough Bridges and Grand Central Terminal, of course, come to mind quickly, and the Grand Army Plaza at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street and the Washington Arch serve as important, formal public spaces of grandeur.
For many years, my mother and I would go to the Arch on Christmas Eve to sing carols with our neighbors around the big Christmas Tree that was placed beneath the arch and after I graduated from the sandbox and seesaw I spent many hours throwing my Spaldeen against the side of the arch where there was a rounded band-course. It's not easy to find Spaldeens anymore, but the Arch has survived my hardest throws. When I eventually traveled to London I was impressed, of course, by its many attractive squares, but none was as impressive as Washington Square. Washington Square may not have been as lushly landscaped as some other urban parks, and one can lament that its surroundings are not architecturally consistent, but for almost two centuries it has been a very important gathering spot for the city. Tourists and theater-goers may have Times Square, but Washington Square was for New Yorkers, young and old, artistic and loud, elegant and disheveled, moody and reflective, caring and exuberant.
Although one might have thought that many more famous artists might have chosen Washington Square as a subject, in actuality there have not been that many artists that have looked hard at the city's architecture and places. Joseph Pennell and John Marin and Georgia O'Keefe are famous exceptions and Childe Hassam, of course, was famous for his "flag" pictures of Fifth Avenue and George Luks did some great scenes of "Armistice Day" and the Lower East Side.