The first impression of New York...is one of repulsion at the clangor, disorder, and permanent earthquake conditions. But this time...in the centre of the cyclone, I caught the pulse of the machine, took up the rhythm...and found it simply magnificent. —William James, 1907 (Heller, 113)
Coney Island is a 442-acre stretch of beach across the southernmost tip of Brooklyn. It is one of the less densely populated neighborhoods in New York City, but each summer, tourists and natives alike flock to its sandy shores.
It is the site of Luna Park—formerly Astroland until 2008—which is the home of the infamous Cyclone and Wonder Wheel. Summer nights at Luna Park are at once exhilarating and disorienting—in spite of the neon lights of the rides, the smell of hot dogs and funnel cakes, and the ever-pulsing sea of people, it is easy to feel detached.
Perhaps it is because I am a summer intern at the Frick Art Reference Library, but I have spent the duration of my internship thinking about Coney Island. Coney Island is special to me because it embodies a unique brand of grit. Initially, it draws people in with promises of leisure—a day spent in the sun and surf, and a night spent on one amusement park ride after the other. But never does it claim to be even remotely glamorous. When the park closes to the public, the employees and residents are left to deal with the useless drivel that remains. In the wake of the clamor, it is particularly un-beautiful.
This is the image of Coney Island that many artists of the American Scene movement sought to capture. Coney Island is a spectacle, but not a romantic one.
The American Scene is perhaps best known for having produced iconic paintings such as Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. Where rural American Scene artists were more interested in the Great Depression’s effect on small towns across the country, urban artists tended to focus on the illusions of grandeur within the dreamscape of a city. Overall, the American Scene was a reaction to modern European styles of the early 20th century. It was an attempt to forge a decidedly American approach to art and mould a lasting identity in the process (Shepherd, 5).
In that vein, Coney Island is a study in social realism. Its frenetic energy translates beautifully into the American Scene, which is why many New York-based artists flocked to it, the most notable of them being Reginald Marsh and Joseph Stella, among others.
Reginald Marsh, Coney Island.
Marsh was born in Paris is 1898. He was a mixed-media artist, working with film, egg tempera, graphite, watercolors and ink over the course of his career. He enjoyed documenting his time at Coney Island, often focusing on the female bathers at the beach and indulging his affinity for public exhibitionism. His work often draws the eye of the viewer to a series of densely packed actions and movements that converge to illustrate a bigger story.
Marsh saw burlesque and Coney Island as opportunities to paint both the human body and the human character. At Luna Park, he was also able to paint crowds and courting couples as part of a fantasy world of side-shows, merry-go-rounds, roller coasters and tunnels of love. —Reginald Marsh (1898-1954): Urban Realist, Master of Many Media (2-3)
Though Joseph Stella, born in Italy in 1877, favored Italian futurism and precisionism, both he and Marsh converged on the common point of Coney Island. Stella’s love of the geometric aesthetic portrays Coney Island as frenzied and dynamic.
Stella depicts the scene at night. He demonstrates the park’s illumination by placing many dashes of light paint on a dark blue-black background. The white dots are reminiscent of the light bulbs that decorated the towers seen in the background: the wavy lines with the bright spots of color that snake across the image suggest strings of lights. In addition to the irregularly placed spots, the brightly lit wheels and ray-like brushstrokes create the impression of a turbulent spectacle of lights. The people who inhabit this park cannot be seen clearly but may have been sketched in the lower area of the painting as lines and spots, representing a crowd of people hurrying between stalls and attractions. —Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time (Haskell, 103)
Joseph Stella, Luna Park, c. 1913, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.
Those interested in learning about the American Scene and the way it depicts urban realities are welcome to consult the collections the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) partners—including the Frick Art Reference Library and the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Brooklyn Museum—through NYARC Discovery. The Brooklyn Museum recently hosted a three-part installation (more here) depicting the development of Coney Island over two centuries and its influence on the art world. Likewise, Robin Frank and Charles Denson’s exhibition catalog Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland is an excellent accompaniment to the installation.
Though seemingly ephemeral, these moments in time at Coney Island have been captured and made immortal by artists of the American Scene. In a city with an ever-changing face, the old-world grime and allure of Coney Island remains the same, forever preserved by the likes of Marsh, Stella and generations of artists past and yet to come.
Damla Bek, Intern, Frick Art Reference Library
Haskell, Barbara, Ortrud Westheider, and Edward Hopper. Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time. Munich: Hirmer, 2009.
Heller, Nancy, Julia Williams, and Nancy Heller. Painters of the American Scene. New York: Galahad Books, 1982.
Marsh, Reginald, and Jordan Awan. Reginald Marsh (1898-1954): Urban Realist, Master of Many Media. New York: D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc., 2008.
Newman Galleries. Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Selected Works on Paper: April 6-17, 1990, Louis Newman Galleries. Beverly Hills, California: The Galleries, 1990.
Shepherd, Susanne Sentell. American Scene Painting: The Rise of Regionalism. Nacogdoches, Texas: Stephen F. Austin State University, 1979.