Central Park’s seven hundred-plus acres make up a nearly perfect rectangle with north, south, east, and west ends, smack dab in the middle of the Manhattan street grid. In the city, no one can escape the park. And even in the park, no one can escape the city, apparent in the skylines of 59th Street, Fifth Avenue, Central Park West, and 110th Street.
American Impressionists—William Merritt Chase, Willard Leroy Metcalf, and William Glackens in particular—captured this relationship between the park’s tall green trees of the park and the city’s taller gray skyline in paint. Indeed, what better subject for a landscape artist than pasture and urban life in one? Of course, Central Park is anything but truly pastoral. Pipes and concrete lie under its ponds and lawns (Milller, 13). But neither was the garden at Giverny; Claude Monet employed gardeners, one of whom trimmed and dusted the waterlilies (“Waterlilies”). A touch of irony and artifice was par for the Impressionist course.
I think that Chase, Metcalf, and Glackens saw the beauty and pretense of Central Park in a way that I do not. Though, I have walked its paths for what feels like a thousand times. My Central Park is subdivided and functional—the Conservatory Garden for strolls with my fiancé and the reservoir for head-clearing stomps. The Central Park that Chase, Metcalf, and Glackens saw is more than the sum of its parts. I suspect that by including the skyline in their art, they intended to remind the viewer that the park is as constructed as the city itself and no less lovely for that.
South: William Merritt Chase’s The Common, Central Park (1889), Private Collection
New York paintings marked William Merritt Chase’s shift from old masterly style to a modern realism and Central Park was as refined as the artist’s own aesthetic (Weinberg). Long, wide, and not too grainy brushstrokes bring out the manicured grass in The Common, Central Park , yet untouched by the stylish people whom Chase often depicted (Weinberg). The abundance of plain grass relieves the viewer’s eye like the creators of the park intended the grand lawns to relieve the souls of overcrowded New Yorkers. The grass draws the gaze of the viewer upward, to find Navarro Flats on the southern skyline (Pisano, 72). The rusty red color makes the buildings pop as the green foliage, in a slight semicircle, encloses them. Rather than a skyline bursting with new towers and grand homes, the focus is symmetry and order.
East: Willard Leroy Metcalf’s Early Spring Afternoon—Central Park (1911), Brooklyn Museum
Early Spring Afternoon—Central Park hangs high above several other American Impressionist artworks on the fifth floor of the Brooklyn Museum. A visitor sitting on the soft stool looking up at the painting has the opposite experience of Willard Leroy Metcalf, who looked down and across the park from his apartment at 69th Street and Central Park West to make the painting (Carbone, 150). The scene is pink and slightly hazy. Four horizontal bands of light and dark divide the composition: dark purple with dark green grass, beige trails with yellow trees, purple shrubbery, and beige/blue skyline. That third band of purple shrubs cuts off the skyline from the park. Fifth Avenue is the backdrop in the hazy east.
West: William Glackens’s Skaters, Central Park (c. 1912), Mount Holyoke College Art Museum
William Glackens inherited the Impressionists’ loose brushwork and angled landscapes, but he flirted with the colors and radical forms of Fauvism (Gerdts, 90)—and that influence comes through in Skaters, Central Park. In Impressionist style, the shadows are colored rather than modulated in grayscale; they all fall in slightly different directions. The ice, dark and cloudy in the background, seems to recede farther than the apartment buildings of Central Park West, which lean slightly leftward and forward. Those buildings are about as bright and warmly-colored as the skaters fighting the cold. Even the snow has the look of mint ice cream. Glackens crops the full expanse of the rink and the height of the apartments, which already soared at the beginning of the twentieth century. The painting focuses on the colors and what Glackens can do with the forms, rather than the city park scene itself.
North: The Great Gap?
Chase and Glackens—though not Metcalf, who generally disliked urban scenes (Carbone, 150)—made many more Central Park paintings. Chase created Bank of a Lake in Central Park; Terrace of the Mall, Central Park; and Park Bench as well as The Common, Central Park. Glackens painted Central Park, Winter and May Day, Central Park. None of these depict the skyline of 110th Street. Other artists from the same period, such as Robert Henri, Louis Eilshemius, Colin Campbell Cooper, Frederick Childe Hassam, Gifford Beal, Johann Berthelsen, and Arthur Clifton Goodwin painted the park too but not the north. That was no-man’s land.
Frederick Law Olmsted, the Central Park architect, decried the “crude and ugly restlessness of the ill-composed skylines” and its “inharmonious” association with the pastoral oasis (Olmsted, 206). Maybe the American Impressionists considered 110th Street particularly disagreeable. The segment of Central Park between 106th Street and 110th Street was, in fact, an afterthought. The commissioners acquired that uppermost parcel of land in 1863 after the rest of the park’s construction and the comptroller Andrew Green limited its landscaping budget (Waxman). In the time of Chase, Metcalf, and Glackens, the neighborhood north of 110th Street was upper-middle class and heavily Jewish, never as glamorous as 59th Street, Fifth Avenue, or Central Park West (Gross).
The city as a whole may have been incidental to Impressionist paintings of Central Park, many of which exclude the skyline altogether. But I think that Chase, Metcalf, and Glackens proved prescient by including any buildings in their views of the park. Perhaps, some artist of tomorrow will cross the final frontier and paint 110th St.
Amanda Brooks-Kelly, Administration Intern, Frick Art Reference Library
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Gerdts, William H. and Santis, Jorge H. William Glackens. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996. Print.
Gross, Max. “Across 110th” New York Post. NYP Holdings, Inc., 14 June 2007. Accessed 19 August 2015. Web.
Miller, Sara Cedar. Central Park, An American Masterpiece. New York: H.N. Abrams, 2003. Print.
Olmsted, F. L., Jr., Ed. Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architect, 1822-1903. F. L. Olmsted and T. K. Hubbard. New York: B. Blom., 1970. Reprint of 1922 edition.
Pisano, Ronald G. and Lane, Carolyn K. Complete Catalogue of Known and Documented Works by William Merritt Chase, V. 2: Landscapes in Oil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. Print.
“Waterlilies by Claude Monet, 1905.” BBC.co.uk. Accessed 29 September 2015. Web.
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Weinberg, H. Barbara. “William Merritt Chase (1849–1916),” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed 27 July 2015. Web.