Spirit of the American City

By Catherine Burns and Lisa Diamond

Benton Spruance, Traffic Control, 1936. Lithograph on wove paper with full margins. Edition of 35. Signed, titled, dated and inscribed “Ed. 35” in pencil. 9 x 14 3/8 inches

When admiring art,  we often imagine standing where the artist once stood.  Here we share works by some of our favorite printmakers, ranging from the teeming masses of humanity by Benton Spruance to the lonely solitude of Edward Hopper.  Drawn to urban sophistication and glamour, most artists embraced a romantic vision of the city even though their prints were created during the trying times of the Great Depression.  (The prints below are available for purchase through Catherine Burns Fine Art in Berkeley, California.)

Howard Cook, Harbor Skyline,1930

Howard Cook was captivated by the bustling Manhattan harbor, animated by dancing plumes of steam. In 1930, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut publicly acknowledged the need to address the growing issue of pollution in the harbor. This was due in large part to the influx of cargo ships bearing coal and billowing soot and smoke from their own coal-powered steam engines, as well as to the increasing number of tugboats guiding them into the docks.  The extent of this pollution shown in Harbor Skyline was not duplicated in New York until the 1960s.

Watch footage of New York harbor in the 1930s.

Cook, Harbor Skyline, 1930. Duffy 129, soft ground edging and aquatint, one of 40 proofs. Signed, dated and numbered 17/50 in pencil. 9 5/8 x 11 15/16 inches
Photo of New York City harbor circa 1935

John Taylor Arms, West 42nd Street,1920

John Taylor Arms received an etching kit as a Christmas gift from his new wife, and by 1919 had decided to make etching his life’s work.  In West 42nd Street, Arms captures his favorite midtown Manhattan buildings. On the left is the north facade of the New York Public Library, a major landmark designed by the firm Carrere and Hastings, where Arms had started his career as an architectural draftsman. 

Beyond the library is the Gothic revival Bush Tower. Arms was passionate about Gothic architecture and that was the focus of many of his European prints.  Bush Tower still stands but it is blocked from view by a modern skyscraper. The Sixth Avenue elevated train station shown in the print no longer exists.  In contrast to other artists who captured the towers of Manhattan from a distance, Arms placed the viewer in the midst of midtown’s architectural glamour. 

Arms, West 42nd St, 1920. Fletcher 41. Etching on wove paper full margins. Edition of 75. Signed in pencil. 13 1/8 by 10 1/2 inches

Gerald Geerlings, Jewelled City, 1931

Gerald Geerlings was an architect, artist, and printmaker known for his early-20th century etchings, aquatints, and intaglios depicting the rise of American metropolises. Below is his rendition of Chicago as the Jewelled City.  In the artist’s words:

“In endeavoring to distill the essence of a city when the composition consists predominantly of buildings, the challenge is always formidable. To me the immediate requirement is to make many, many sketches, varying the standpoint from which to draw, the perspective, horizon, the chiaroscuro, and even the relative height and location of the structures.

“The variety of tonal values, the pattern which leads the eye, and ever-changing patterns, and the elimination of the boring or banal details are superior to a photograph which could hold the viewer’s interest for a much shorter period.

“I refuse to do a lithograph or an etching of subject matter that, when greatly reduced in size, the reproduction looks like a photograph. If my final results with lithograph pencil or etching needle can be mistaken for a photo, then it is a waste of my time to spend hours and hours doing what I can achieve with my camera in less than a second.”

Geerlings, Jewelled City, 1931. Czestochowski 21 vii/vii. Etching and aquatint printed in blue ink. A rare variant color proof. Signed and titled in pencil. 15 5/8 x 11 3/4 inches

Christopher Nevinson, The Great White Way, 1920

The British artist Christopher Nevinson first visited New York in 1919 for an exhibition of his war prints. In contrast to London, New York inspired amazement and awe with its 50 to 60 story skyscrapers and electric lights that brought streets alive with activity after hours.

During his visit, Nevinson created many drawings of the new architecture, including nocturnal images capturing the bright radiating lights unique to the city. These included preparatory sketches for The Great White Way. (This stretch of city street was given this nickname by a journalist in 1902.)

Nevinson, The Great White Way 1920. Black 71. Lithograph. Edition of 25. Signed in pencil. 19 3/4 by 12 inches

George Grosz, The Green Door,1934

Set in the downtown Broadway theater district, The Green Door was created a year after Grosz arrived in New York, where he was welcomed as an internationally renowned artist. Just as he had critiqued the corruption and chaos in Germany between the wars, Grosz interpreted contemporary American society with an often acerbic or satirical tone.

This large and energetic drawing titled The Green Door features a mysterious black man handing out cards to passersby and an archetypal Grosz figure with a hat and cigar. It is brimming with marvelous details, with the theater marquee in the background and a dentist’s sign with an outsized set of teeth in a glass case.

In 1934, George Macy, publisher of the Limited Editions Club, commissioned Grosz to illustrate O. Henry’s collection of short stories. Ralph Jentsch writes, “With his short stories often taking place in gloomy milieus, with heroes living at the edge of existence, O. Henry achieved the reputation as a master of the literary twist. It was an ideal template for an artist like Grosz…having walked this Broadway area many times himself, Grosz introduces in The Green Door, next to O. Henry’s descriptions, his own experiences. It is the swirling life of Broadway.”

Grosz, The Green Door, 1934. Pencil on paper. Preparatory drawing for a watercolor illustrating “The Voice of the City and Other Stories” by O. Henry. The Limited Editions Club, NY, 1935. Signed in pencil. 23 1/4 by 18 and 1/8 inches
Doorman at club on Broadway, 1938

Read The Green Door by O. Henry.  

Edward Hopper, East Side Interior, 1922

In 1956, Hopper wrote about the inspiration for this etching as “memories of glimpses of rooms seen from the streets on the east side in my walks in that part of the city. No implication was intended with any ideology concerning the poor and the oppressed. The interior itself was my main interest–simply a piece of New York, the city that interests me so much.”

The corner view of a room was a favorite of Hopper’s. Perhaps he was moved by the stark light from the window in his Washington Square studio.  He used this compositional device in many of his works to animate the surfaces of the interior space and imbue the scene with dramatic tension, as in East Side Interior, below.

Hopper, East Side Interior, 1922. Etching with drypoint on wove paper, full margins. Edition of 100. Signed in pencil. 8 x 10 inches
Photo, seamstress on lower East Side, 1920s

Listen to this interview with Edward Hopper about his creative process. 

George Bellows, Splinter Beach, 1916

An expert lithographer, George Bellows used a wide range of tonal values and expressive lines to obtain a gritty feel for the impoverished people he often portrayed. Inspired by the vitality of working-class New Yorkers, he visited them where they lived, played, and worked to make his sketches.

Splinter Beach is one of a significant series of illustrations that the artist produced for the socialist magazine, The Masses, in 1913. Based on single figure sketches, this lithograph captures the dynamism of young boys cavorting at a local swim spot. As the naked boys traipse along the East River under the Brooklyn Bridge and gather in the foreground, Bellows inserts a dense and dreary cityscape, reminding his viewers that the grimy riverside scene is far from a sea front vacation, but rather an intimate observation of the stark reality of New York’s lower class.” (Dallas Museum of Fine Art.)

Bellows, Splinter Beach, 1916. Lithograph on thin laid Japanese paper with full margins. Edition of 70. Signed, titled and numbered 61 in pencil. 15 1/16 x 19 7/8 inches
Photo, East River Swim, 1910

Benton Spruance, Highway Holiday, 1934-35

Benton Spruance produced several lithographs featuring automobiles — rarely used as a subject matter in artwork.  In this print, Highway Holiday, we see a skeletal driver and passengers riding in a hurtling vehicle in what is thought to be a rural setting. The windows of the vehicle are opaque, and the scene is activated by a hand reaching up from a pile of corpses beneath the car’s wheels.  The electronic traffic light signifies modernization. (From Auto America: The Automobile in American Art, circa 1900 to 1950 by Jerry N. Smith, 2012)

Spruance, Highway Holiday, 1934-35. Lithograph on wove paper, watermarked FRANCE with full margins. Edition of 35. Signed, titled, dated and numbered in pencil, 10 1/8 x 14 7/16 inches

The People Work, 1937

In 1937, after much preliminary study and revision, Spruance issued a set of four large lithographs titled The People Work.  While he was making these images, his hometown of Philadelphia was extending the Broad Street subway. At the time, there were several rapid transit systems in operation in New York and elsewhere in the United States.  Spruance likely based his series on his local system, while aiming to represent a generalized idea of life in the modern American city. 

Spruance, Morning, Lithograph from The People Work, 1937. Rare, full set of four. Each print signed, dated, titled and inscribed Ed. 40 in pencil. 13 5/8 x 19 inches

Spruance’s Morning (above) shows the early rush hour and the intermingling of strangers from all walks of life, riding public transit to work.

Spruance, Noon, 1937

Noon (above) juxtaposes two activities—moving about the city streets and having lunch. It also portrays two strata of urban society—office workers and laborers.

Spruance, Evening, 1937

Evening (above) shows a darkening city illuminated by lamplights. In the top half of the picture, a policeman directs traffic as pedestrians cross the street in front of a double-decker bus and cars.   In the lower half is an overcrowded subway car, with riders absorbed in their newspapers. 

Night (below) shows several vignettes:  A couple snuggling in a deserted car of an elevated train. Party revelers on a balcony. Workmen gathering in a subway bar, while outside, two cats sniff at a garbage can, and two women passing some repairman working on the subway tracks.

Spruance, "Night," 1937

James Allen, The Builders, 1932

In the early 1900s, photography became the most popular documentary mode. The Builders directly borrowed or at least strongly echoed, Lewis Hines’ photographs of the construction of the Empire State Building. Allen worked out his figures by drawing models in the studio, often creating life sized charcoal studies for his prints. For The Builders, Allen called in a construction site foreman to check his accuracy before allowing the plate to be printed. The Builders was Allen’s first print to earn awards and recognition. It was published on the cover of the Herald Tribune magazine in 1933 and in the Sunday Review Brooklyn Eagle the following year.

Allen, The Builders, 1932. Etching, aquatint and drypoint on laid paper. Edition of 100. Signed in pencil. 9 7/8 x 11 7/8 inches
Photo, New York City construction workers, 1930s

Who were these builders?   In this video, learn more about the men who made Manhattan. 

Arnold Ronnebeck, Wall Street, 1925

Arnold Ronnebeck’s Wall Street captures the dramatic visual effect of a skyscraper- lined canyon in the heart of the financial district of lower Manhattan. From deep shadows to brilliant light, the scene emphasizes the unrelenting geometry of modern urban architecture. In the far distance is the spire of the historic Trinity Church. a Gothic-revival Episcopal parish church completed in 1846.

Ronnebeck, Wall Street, 1925. Lithograph on wove BFK paper with full margins. Small edition signed in pencil. 12 7/16 x 6 1/16 inches

Catherine Burns has been a dealer in fine prints and drawings for more than 30 years. Her firm specializes in 19th and early 20th century prints with a concentration in American WPA-era art, French art, German Expressionism and British Modernism. Lisa Diamond is gallery manager at Catherine Burns Fine Art.  This article was adapted from an online exhibition created in 2021.  View this show online for more striking images of Spirit of the American City.

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