How Artists Saw New York City Throughout the 20th Century

By the mid-20th century, New York City had arguably surpassed Paris as the new capital of Western art. Artists from all over the world still flock to the city to this day, drawn by its diversity, culture, and opportunity. But New York hasn’t just housed generations of artists; it’s also been their muse.

Scenes of New York City: The Elie and Sarah Hirschfeld Collection, edited by Roberta J. M. Olson and published by D Giles Limited, is a compendium of artworks inspired by the Big Apple. Real estate developer and art collector Hirschfeld began collecting works on the theme in the 1970s, when he purchased a 1945 painting by Thomas Hart Benton depicting a view of Washington Square. Today, his collection — which he recently promised to the New-York Historical Society — comprises 113 pieces by 82 artists, most of which were executed after 1900. 

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The artists in Hirschfeld’s collection made their works as visitors, immigrants, and natives to the dynamic city. They recorded New York as it changed in ways big and small, from skyscrapers and bridges to lunch counters and street vendors. Hirschfeld’s collection offers a multifaceted visual history of the city, albeit one through a mostly European and European-descended lens. In conjunction with the book, Hirschfeld’s collection is also on view at the New-York Historical Society through August.

Mark Rothko, “Untitled (The Subway)” (1937), oil on canvas (© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York)

Standouts include Marc Chagall’s “View of Central Park from the Window” (1958), a drawing made from the artist’s room at the Stanhope Hotel with airy, quick strokes that seem to capture a bit of the city’s frenetic energy. On the other end of the spectrum, Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (The Subway)” (1937), with its muddy colors and cage-like pillars, conveys the stifling stillness on the platform during the moments between trains.

As an added bonus, Scenes of New York City often features lesser-known sketches and pieces that show artists at unexpected angles. For instance, we see Georgia O’Keeffe relish in the sharp lines of the Brooklyn Bridge, a crowded backyard scene by the nature-lover Charles Burchfield, and a luminous oil painting of Greeley Square by the illustrator and Madeline creator Ludwig Bemelmans. Lovers of New York are sure to enjoy the many views of the city that the book offers.

Marc Chagall, “View of Central Park from the Window (Vue de la fenêtre sur Central Park)” (1958), pastel, colored pencils, and black crayon over graphite on Japanese paper (the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY, © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Theresa Bernstein, “The Lunch Counter at S. Klein’s in Union Square in the 1930s” (ca. 1930–39), watercolor on paper
Charles Burchfield, “Backyards in New York” (1916), watercolor, white gouache, and graphite on paper (reproduced with permission of the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation)
Jacob Lawrence, “Harlem Diner” (1938), water-pressed tempera on paper, laid on board (© 2021 Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York)
Reginald Marsh, “Construction, Steel Workers” (1924), oil on canvas (© 2021 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York)
Everett Shinn, “New York at Night” (1933), pastel on paper
Georgia O’Keeffe, “Study for “Brooklyn Bridge” (1949), charcoal and black and white chalk on paper (© 2021 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York)
Norman P. Rockwell, “Gramercy Park” (ca. 1918), oil on canvas

Scenes of New York City: The Elie and Sarah Hirschfeld Collection, edited by Roberta J. M. Olson, is published by D Giles Limited and is available on Bookshop.


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