Inside Look: Washington Bridge, New York City
May 1, 2019
In April 2019, I took part in the Inside Look series as a mediator between a work of art and an audience. The exercise was new to me, but I wanted to highlight what I consider to be a masterpiece in the museum’s paintings collection: Ernest Lawson’s Washington Bridge, New York City (1915-25). I was not the only one intrigued by this view of northern Manhattan. During the fruitful discussions made possible by the series’ format, several opinions were expressed about the curious choices made by the painter in his depiction of this landscape. Though named after the bridge, the picture hardly shows it, relegated to the background, cut in half by the frame. A few isolated cabins, as well as more elaborate buildings, occupy a barren rocky terrain, on what appears to be a late-winter day, with naked trees standing among patches of melting snow. And how about this American flag, hung on a pole, next to the Harlem River? And how about this single tugboat, fighting the river’s current?
Scrutinizing this image for an hour allowed for a welcome reconsideration of its complex nature, in the recently-reorganized gallery where it features alongside works by John Sloan and George Bellows. Lawson was born Canadian in 1873. In 1888, he moved to Kansas City, before studying art in New York. But the turning point of his education happened in 1893, when he did what many American artists did to perfect their training: travel to France. After attending classes at the Académie Julian, Lawson followed his new friend and mentor, Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley, to the village of Moret-sur-Loing, southeast of Paris. When he returned to America, the young painter was thus infused with that movement’s principles, which one can still sense in his depictions of New York City. He and his wife eventually settled on 155th Street in 1898, motivated by their interest in Washington Heights, an underdeveloped part of the metropolis.
Over the next three decades, Lawson would relentlessly paint visions of an unknown Manhattan, far from the shiny mansions of Fifth Avenue and the bustling activity of Midtown. His island was a wild frontier still to be infringed upon, which struck his contemporaries and brought him fame. Collectors such as Duncan Philips and Albert Barnes soon became faithful patrons, along with numerous wealthy New Yorkers, attracted by his vivid palette and his energetic, wide brushstrokes. The artist himself, in an interview given in the 1930s, emphasized his use of color as a powerful medium: “Color is my specialty in art. […] It affects me like music affects some persons, emotionally. I like to play with color like a composer playing with counterpoint in music.” Halfway between the traditions of European Impressionism and the visual experimentations of the Ashcan School, with which he exhibited works at the Macbeth Galleries in 1908, Lawson’s paintings had become the sensation of his time.
Though more muted than other canvasses, Washington Bridge operates on the same level. It first catches the viewer’s eye even before one can formally identify the location of the scene. As such, his composition is neither a social commentary, nor a celebration of the technicity of steel bridges (in 1917, Lawson also painted the most famous of these, the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883). It is an invitation to enter an alternate world, probably reimagined in part by the painter in his studio. Lawson’s New York is not a strict documentary record of the evolution of the city’s fabric. It is a romanticized tableau of what it meant to live on the fringes of civilization, to be left out of the very progress heralded by a now-industrialized United States. His bridge and its surrounding environment are a meditation on growth and decay, man’s relationship to nature, the ruthless business of real estate and America’s expansionist character, enshrined in the nation’s identity since the mid-19th century.
With the advent of movements like Precisionism and Surrealism, Lawson’s art grew out-of-fashion in the late 1920s. Hailed as the best American artist alive just 20 years earlier, he died in poverty in Florida on December 18, 1939, probably committing suicide. Forgotten by art history books, his oeuvre nevertheless inspires many reflections and deserves to be studied more extensively. As such, the most heartwarming reaction I had from a member of the audience at the end of our chat was that of someone who told me that, though they had stopped in front of this picture at the museum before, they were now reconsidering it, and Lawson, in a new light. I was glad I had helped rehabilitate a man whom painter Robert Henri had once described as “the biggest [artist] we have had [in this country] since Winslow Homer.”
Ph.D Student in Art History
University of Delaware