The end of the Industrial Revolution sparked interest in the lives of everyday people, as well as the creative endeavors of practicing artists of the period. American cities were bustling centers of business and industry. Inventions were changing the way people lived day to day, and cities like New York were at the top of their game. The New Britain Museum of American Art’s collection contains countless paintings that depict cities. Two examples are John Sloan’s Main Street, Gloucester and Georgia O’Keeffe’s East River from the 30th Story of Shelton Hotel. Each of theses works utilize color and brush strokes in powerful ways to convey distinct meanings.
In Main Street, Gloucester we witness an everyday scene of a bustling town. Gloucester, Massachusetts, can be seen as a microcosm of the time within the busy lives of everyday people. One could think of it as New Britain in comparison to Hartford. The color palette consists of variants of primary colors. The buildings range from dabs of reds and browns with the sky a range of blues and whites and the road a yellow spectrum reminiscent of a corn field or golden sunlight. This road divides the painting, and brings the viewer’s eye to the horizon line. The brushwork is distinct yet loose, and the entire work has a sense of arid cleanliness. The crowds of people overflow off the sidewalk onto the street. A cop in the foreground capitalizes on the bustling nature of the people behind him, although he isn’t actually doing anything to foster hostility from the pastel ladies which are in contrast to him in the foreground.
The colors and brushwork evoke a certain aesthetic in this small town that can be further amplified when juxtaposed with East River from the 30th Story of Shelton Hotel. O’Keeffe’s depiction of her view from one of the highest buildings in Manhattan shows the city below. The color palette is more neutral in tone, with the water being the primary element of color present. The colors are blended well, and the lines are sharp and bold on man-made structures. The city is depicted as booming with life, which is apparent from the industrial smoke stakes, and various boats in the water.
Yet we cannot see anyone, so the feeling of the work is still. The signs of life are there, but adequately hidden from sight. O’Keeffe’s strong geometrical elements help to emphasize the harsh world as viewed from her window. In comparison to Sloan, we understand a different side to the city. Industrial projects were going strong until the Great Depression in the Tri-State Area, and nationwide. The colors are more subdued due to the lack of people and movement.
Cities and bustling towns in the early 20th century were undergoing a boom of technology, and these two paintings help to communicate their prosperity and chaos. Each utilizes different techniques. The first is extremely loose and aesthetically carefree. Upon closer examination we understand how much is actually going on in this seemingly easy depiction of everyday life on the streets of a town. A bright color palette, when combined with this loose technique, provides the viewer with a very different reaction then the 2nd painting. That one utilizes harsh bold lines, which combine with the smooth appearance of anything natural (like a river.) Each painting depicts busy everyday life, yet the 2nd is one of technology and behind closed doors. The neutral color palate when combined with this provides a still, almost dirty aesthetic.
Color is a crucial tool when depicting towns or cities in post-Industrial Revolution paintings. Which do you think provides a better view of early 20th century life? Which color palette provides more appropriate aesthetics for what is depicted?
Make sure to stop by the NBMAA to see these paintings in person.
The O’Keeffe is part of the current exhibition WomenArtists@NewBritainMuseum, on view through March 20.