Self in the City: Highlights from the Collections of the Hudson River Museum and Art Bridges

This exhibition focuses on the urban environment and the ways in which cities and individuals contend with each other.

By Hudson River Museum

Quilt: 'Jacob's Ladder' or 'Triangles' Pattern (1900) by UnknownHudson River Museum

Since the late nineteenth century, American cities have become increasingly industrialized. Cities offer a range of cultural, occupational, and social opportunities within a bustling community, and yet simultaneously evoke feelings of alienation, nostalgia, and struggle. From an 1878 painting by William Hahn to one from 1978 by Susan Hall, Self in the City invites discussion about this urban paradox. The artists present figures within cityscapes from diverse vantage points, exploring topics such as migration, industrialization, and personal expression. In each case, the artist challenges us to consider the merits of blending in or standing out.

New York Dimout (1943-02) by Andreas FeiningerLIFE Photo Collection

Cities such as New York and Chicago were meccas of migration for people from rural areas and the South. Alone and in groups, millions moved north seeking work, community, and, in the case of African Americans, freedom from segregation and violence. Artists have always had a unique relationship with the urban landscape. The concentration of museums, art schools, commercial galleries, and patrons in cities was advantageous for aspiring artists from all around the country.

Union Square, New York (1878) by William HahnHudson River Museum

Although cities are known for their towering buildings and busy streets, they often contain man-made parks and open squares, where commerce flourished during their genesis in the Gilded Age.

William Hahn gives us insight into the hustle and bustle of New York’s Union Square in the late 1870s, which was the heart of the theater district at the time. In front of the peaceful park filled with well-dressed figures leisurely strolling and reading, the less fortunate newsboys struggle to snatch their stacks of the Daily Evening News from the horse carriage.

Individuals go about their day in small groups, with the few connections between different social classes defined by the unequal norms of the era. A servant or nanny pushes a baby carriage; the cap and apron mark her as a worker. At lower right, a girl seems to console a boy while two women conversing next to them ignore the situation. Hahn shows that even on a street corner with many commercial and social opportunities, class division in cities can create feelings of alienation for individuals.

Storm Over the Hudson (Looking Towards the Old Yonkers Ferry) (ca. 1944–46) by Junius AllenHudson River Museum

Yonkers, where the Hudson River Museum is located, owes its colonial settlement to the Saw Mill, or Nepperhan, River, which flowed into the Hudson and provided waterpower. It became a center of manufacturing and jobs for new residents long before the arrival of the railroad and coal powered machinery in the mid-nineteenth century.

Factories along the river dictated the location of housing for workers and managers, many of whom walked to work. Seen here, a small lunch establishment, possibly on Ashburton Avenue, feeds people who cannot make it home for the midday meal but might have time for a break.

With painterly brushwork, Allen captures the gleam of rainwater on pavement and the reflections of anonymous pedestrians braving the weather. Against the potential isolation of a city, a bright spot of red attracts our attention to the woman sharing an umbrella with her child, and two men greet each other under the shelter of the luncheonette porch, where the proprietor is in the open window, ready for business.

Hudson River View (Sugar Factory at Yonkers) (1915) by Daniel Putnam BrinleyHudson River Museum

Daniel Putnam Brinley grew up in Cos Cob, a picturesque enclave of Greenwich, Connecticut, that was the home of an American Impressionist art colony from about 1890 to 1920. During a trip to Europe from 1904 to 1908, Brinley met, and was influenced by, the American Modernist painters John Marin and Max Weber. His mature work blends the bright colors of Impressionism with newer tendencies of bolder delineation, flattened forms, and structured composition. He exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 and was instrumental in organizing the Armory Show, which introduced European Modernism to America.

Brinley, like many of his contemporaries, was intrigued with the architecture and activity of urban manufacturing—seeing its man-made grandeur as an industrial idyll. With strong lines and bold colors, his factory dwarfs the natural beauty of the Palisades, as well as the anonymous figures on the street, barely indicated with minimal brushstrokes. Plumes of smoke mix with steam from the train and river boats, filling the sky and adding energy to the painting.

Such scenes remind us that, at the time, cities were magnets for migration from rural areas and abroad because of the many opportunities for work in factories.

Painter Jacob Lawrence by Robert W KelleyLIFE Photo Collection

Jacob Lawrence, whose rich artistic career began during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City, explored the African American experience in a modern style of abstracted realism with bold shapes and colors.

The Studio (1996) by Jacob LawrenceHudson River Museum

In this image, Jacob Lawrence depicts himself at work in his adopted city of Seattle, where he moved in 1971 to teach art at the University of Washington. Lawrence never forgot the flourishing and supportive art community of his early career. Interviewed about the window view in this image he said: “These buildings back here bring somewhat of the tenements of New York. In reality, this [view] is an empty wall. So I decided to put that back . . . as a sort of symbol of my thinking of the big city of New York.”

Inside the room, Lawrence surrounds himself with examples of his work, which also reflect his nostalgia for New York City and the culture he left behind. On the wall behind him is a representation of People in Other Rooms, a Harlem street scene painted in 1975. The painting at the lower right, Builders #3, 1974, features carpenters, a frequent subject of his New York years. Woodworking was a field open to Black men, and Lawrence associated that creative process with his own work.

W.P.A. Art Show-New York. (1937-05) by Unknown PhotographerLIFE Photo Collection

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) fostered urban art communities by employing artists. Jacob Lawrence, as well as Daniel Putnam Brinley, Paul Cadmus, Norman Lewis, and Archibald Motley, Jr., all featured in this exhibition, also benefited from the program. This image shows unidentified participants in a WPA art show in New York City. Approximately ten thousand individuals worked for the WPA’s Federal Art Project, and many struggled to earn a living after it ended in 1943.

Bronzeville at Night (Art Bridges Collection) (1949) by Archibald John Motley, Jr.Hudson River Museum

This is one of a series of paintings in which Archibald Motley, Jr. celebrated the Chicago Southside neighborhood of Bronzeville, which had a thriving cultural scene similar to the area around New York’s 125th Street during the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes described Bronzeville’s busy restaurants, clubs, and theaters in his autobiography as “excitement from noon to noon. Midnight was like day.” Motley’s overall blue tone and stylized figures moving in every direction perfectly capture this lamplit night and the dense crowd in the area known as “The Stroll.”

By Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

African Americans flocked from the South to Chicago between the world wars. Some, like Motley’s parents from New Orleans, had come even earlier. The city’s labor shortage held the promise of jobs and access to the working and middle class, while others overcame tremendous odds to gain a rare foothold among the professional classes. The period became known as the New Negro Movement, a term coined by Alain Locke to describe a newfound appreciation for African American art, literature, and jazz music.

Bronzeville at Night (Art Bridges Collection) (1949) by Archibald John Motley, Jr.Hudson River Museum

In Bronzeville, it was common to see scenes like this, with residents headed for nightclubs such as Jack’s Chicken Shack, or simply enjoying themselves out in the street. Motley was classically trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and painted many realistic portraits, so his bright palette of cool blues and hot reds and the abstracted anonymity of his figures was quite intentional. His style emphasizes the mood and vitality of the time and place, creating a stage set in which we might all imagine ourselves.

Spring on Madison Avenue (1938, printed 1980) by Barbara MorganHudson River Museum

This image combines three areas of interest Barbara Morgan pursued in the late 1930s: photography, modern dance, and the overwhelming scale of New York City, which she said “engulfs its people.” Here, Morgan employs photomontage, the art of layering two or more images, to express the multiplicity of forces and human drama she found there. One of Morgan’s few images that combines dance and urban life, this winter view is probably taken from her studio window.

The dancer, superimposed with tulips representing the hope of a coming spring, is Erick Hawkins, a key figure in the Martha Graham Dance Company. His pose is from Graham’s dance piece American Document, during which a narrator intoned: “This is one man/ this is one million men/ this man has a power. It is himself, and you.” Near the end of the Great Depression, Morgan takes this moment from the dance to show how an individual can point the way forward for a group of people, who appear, though her juxtaposition, to follow his assertive lead into a new beginning.

Shore Leave (1935) by Paul CadmusHudson River Museum

This etching by Paul Cadmus of rowdy off-duty sailors in Riverside Park is based on his 1933 painting with the same title, now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Paul Cadmus Artist (1937) by Peter StackpoleLIFE Photo Collection

Paul Cadmus grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the son of a commercial artist. After studying at the National Academy of Design he pursued a career in advertising until he began painting for himself, inspired by the artist Jared French, who became his lover. The cultural and social scene of New York City was vital to Cadmus’ personal self-discovery, as he had the chance to meet other gay men like himself at a time when it would have been much more difficult and dangerous in many parts of the country.

Shore Leave (1935) by Paul CadmusHudson River Museum

Cadmus includes a suggestive encounter between men in the background of Shore Leave. Details like this and his curvaceous style of depicting male bodies shocked many people. The artist made a number of paintings into prints, for wider distribution, because fear of censorship made him wary of losing his legacy.

Bicentennial Quilt (1976) by Ellanora Kolb (1904–2000), Anna McDonough (ca. 1910–2000), and Pauline Ringler (1909–2006)Hudson River Museum

Standing on a crowded, underground subway platform is a distinct feature of life in New York City. When the Sixth Avenue elevated railway (the “El”) closed in 1939, six years before this work was painted, newspaper columnist Harriet Fitts Ryan dreaded that she would be forced to take the subway, to “join the mad rush and breathe its foul air.” She contrasted the close underground quarters, where “there is nothing to see but the tired face opposite,” with the sunny urban landscape seen from the El.

This painting is figural, but Lewis’ composition is distorted and deconstructed by his experiments with abstraction. The shallow space and flattened forms are reminiscent of Cubism, and the way he manipulates line and color and textures the paint with sand makes the figures fade into their environment, a sense one may feel in city crowds.

By Michael RougierLIFE Photo Collection

The year 1945, when Norman Lewis painted Untitled (Subway Station), was a turning point in his career, as his style transitioned from the Social Realism of his early work to increasingly non-representational paintings. During the 1930s, Lewis’ paintings depicted racial inequality and the Great Depression, but in 1951, his work would be featured, alongside Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, in the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America. Lewis was the lone African American painter in the vanguard of Abstract Expressionism.

Moving Home (1978) by Susan HallHudson River Museum

This painting depicts Manhattan’s skyline when Susan Hall was living in Greenwich Village. It references not only a physical location but what she calls “the ‘home’ inside all of us, which we are always seeking, leaving, journeying to or exploring.”


Hall was born and raised in Point Reyes, California, moving to New York City in 1970 when the Feminist Art movement was emerging. She found a strong community of avant-garde artists centered in SoHo while teaching at various schools, including Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers. After two decades, she returned to the West Coast. Since then, she has used the word “home” in numerous titles and references, including books about her paintings, Home Before Dark (2004), and her life, River Flowing Home, A Creative Journey (2010).

Moving Home evokes multilayered connections to a city, and how the relationship between city and self can change over a lifetime. Although Hall does not depict any figures, she asserts, “What represents human beings more than the idea of a physical house that we dwell in or where we want to live . . . or nostalgia for where we used to live?”

By Andreas FeiningerLIFE Photo Collection

The Hudson River Museum is honored to be an Art Bridges partner. Art Bridges is a foundation established by arts patron Alice Walton to facilitate the sharing of outstanding works of American art and support partner institutions in connecting with audiences. These masterpieces provoke new ways of interpreting works within our own collection and create a unique context that inspires thoughtful conversations.

With these selections, we invite you to think about how you define yourself in relation to cities. Do cities boost or drain your energies? Do you feel a sense of community or long for one?

Credits: Story

Support provided by Art Bridges

Produced by the Hudson River Museum

Self in the City: Highlights from the Collections of the Hudson River Museum and Art Bridges is on view from August 14, 2019 through August 9, 2020. The Museum is temporarily closed due to the public due to the pandemic. Please visit the Hudson River Museum website for up-to-date information on plans for reopening.

Image Credits:

LIFE Photo Collection

Susan Hall, Moving Home, 1978. Acrylic on paper, mounted on canvas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Schorr, 1983. © 2020 Susan Hall / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Jacob Lawrence, The Studio, 1996. Museum Purchase, 2018. Lithograph. © 2020 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / ARS, NY

Archibald John Motley, Jr., Bronzeville at Night, 1949. Oil on canvas. On loan from Art Bridges. © Valerie Gerrard Browne / Chicago History Museum / Bridgeman Images

Barbara Morgan, Spring on Madison Avenue, 1938, printed 1980. Gelatin silver print from three negatives. Gift of Lloyd and Janet Morgan, 1984. © Barbara and Willard Morgan photographs and papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

Paul Cadmus, Shore Leave, 1935. Etching. From Twelve Etchings, published by The Print Cabinet, Connecticut, 1979. © 2020 Estate of Paul Cadmus / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Norman Wilfred Lewis. Untitled (Subway Station), 1945. Oil and sand on canvas. On loan from Art Bridges. © Norman Wilfred Lewis

Eric Fischl. Untitled (From Four Etchings), 1989-1990. Etching, ed. 46/100. Gift of Mrs. June Sidmon, 1997 (97.7.2). © 2020 Eric Fischl / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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