New York City’s Painting Gems
This is the special feature for the American Painter Magazine that I created on my own.
Some 40,000 years ago, people started to mimic what they saw in their ambitious attempts to contemplate on the nature of the things around them. Images preceded words. Words led to language. Language led to culture. Culture led to cities.
A rare city can compete with New York in the art of painting. It has been drawing artists from all over the world like a big rectangular-shaped magnet. Funny enough, there are 212 New York museums that can cater to anyone—from painting lovers to science geeks. According to Frommer’s Guide, New York has a gargantuan number of art galleries—over 500 just in Manhattan. With all of them being free for public, it is, hands down, the best place on earth for unhurried gallery-hopping. The artistic heart of the city is beating in the neighborhoods of SoHo and Chelsea. There are around 250 galleries are located just in the area just between 20th and 29th streets and 10th and 11th avenues.
To survive, fine art needs a few components: the artists, the art museums, the art galleries and the interested viewers. New York has a combination of all four, topped with its deep roots in business and commerce. Art and money are the two sides of one coin in the city that never stops working.
New York City’s painting collection is truly extraordinary—only the Metropolitan Museum has around 1,700 European and over 15,000 American paintings. The city has renowned works from all over the world. Let’s talk about a few of them in detail.
The Met’s collection of Italian paintings has its own suite of galleries, according to the Art Guide to New York by Morgan Falconer. One of the reasons of the revival of the Italian art at the museum is the private collection of Robert Lehman, an investment banker and a famous art collector. His art acquisitions span over 60 years and include 300 paintings of the marvelous
Madonna and the Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist, a mixed tempera and oil painting by Cosimo Rosselli that lived in the XV-XVI century Florence, is one of the most interesting works in the collection. The azure coat is a common detail for Italian Renaissance paintings—only Madonna was allowed to show up in images wearing that colour. And the reason is that the aquamarine pigment was highly expensive at that time and needed to be transported from Near East. Madonna’s and the child’s hair and the semi-transparent cloak demonstrate high precision of the artist. Paintings like this can’t be comprehended by looking at them for a minute. They need time and concentration. When you look closer to the canvas’ surface, you don’t just see the technique, you perceive the world as it was seen centuries ago—the pale faces of graceful dames, the picturesque views of distant fields and rivers. But most importantly, this kind of painting shows the mysterious world of the religious art, which fascinated people during Medieval Ages and Early Renaissance.
Another notable holder of Italian paintings in New York is the Frick Collection. Its earliest work of art is Duccio’s Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (1308-1311), one panel from a double-sided altarpiece, painted for Siena’s cathedral. The painting shows the Christ pointing to the devil, who’s almost falling on a standard Medieval toy-looking town at the bottom. Among the other famous artists there are Pietro della Francesca and Giovanni Bellini.
A monumental reminder that the American-French relationships in art have deep roots, stands alone on a tiny island separated from Manhattan by the waters of Hudson river. The statue of Liberty. She’s the work of French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904). This is, perhaps, the last still remembered fragment of the long forgotten French classical art in the United States.
Since the beginning of the XX century, modern art has destroyed the perfect forms of antiquity, that was beloved and copied over by the academic movement. In the US, only New York has a museum dedicated to this kind of expression—the Dahesh Museum of Art. It started with a collection of Dr. Salim Moussa Achi, who lived in Lebanon and wrote under the name of Dr. Dahesh. The museum has been open to public since 1995 and claims to change your view on the works produced by academically-trained artists.
The Metropolitan Museum’s French art collection spans through several centuries and includes quite notable works of artists like Picasso and Matisse. Nicola Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (1637) shows a mythological scene where Romulus, the founder of Rome, tries to detain Sabine women, invited by him to a religious festivity that turned into a dramatic outcry for help. The baroque artist was a grasp of fresh air during the stagnant years of French classicism. His style, although academic, is very sophisticated, and has psychological depth.
The Frick Collection has a particularly interesting selection of French Rococo painters, including Francois Boucher (1703-1770) and Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806).
Right before the birth of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870, something unthinkable happened in the European art scene: in 1863 a strange and shocking painting was exhibited for the first time in Paris—Luncheon in the Grass by Edouard Manet. A completely naked woman is keeping company of two men in the afternoon by a river bank. She’s looking right at the viewer and seems to be oblivious to the surroundings. This was the end of an era. New art was growing fast and sought new horizons. New York city seemed like an obvious choice.
The Met has an outstanding selection of late XIX century art of French bourgeois painters like Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. The more meditative Paul Gaugen and Claud Monet are also represented at the museum. Pointillist Paul Signac’s Evening Calm, Concarneau (1891) is a colourful burst of rounded strokes of sky blue and mustard yellow, showing a serene view of a village harbor with boats reflecting in still waters or the Bay of Biskay in Western France.
The Museum of Modern Art is, of course, the epicenter of contemporary art in New York, featuring works of Kasimir Malevich, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (1931) has been fascinating many creative people around the world with its magical dimension where clocks melt and bizarre shapes form out of thin air.
The painting scene in New York City is hard to be described by words. The experience of being immersed into the vast abyss of works of art from Medieval icons to Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans is an unforgettable one. The city has everything that a creative person would need for inspiration. Anyone who considers themselves an artist or just an art lover must go there at least once in a lifetime or stay for good to avidly grasp all the enormity of human expression.