No matter how many times you visit New York City to see art, you can’t ever do more than scratch the surface. Still, it’s surprising to this art museum junkie that he failed to visit the New-York Historical Society until earlier this month.
One reason it took so long is that this museum is on the wrong side of Central Park. Emsworth is used to taking in the row of art museums on or just off Fifth Avenue (on the east side of Central Park), from the Guggenheim at 89th Street down to the MOMA on West 53rd Street, but getting to other parts of Manhattan is more challenging.
But the New-York Historical Society (yes, the hyphen is part of the name) is on the west side of the park, on Central Park West, between 76th and 77th Street. Feeling adventuresome, we actually got there quite easily (by taking the B train from the PATH station at 33rd Street), congratulating ourselves on our navigational skills.
The New-York Historical Society is not a place for art-lovers who are interested mainly in the American impressionists or in 20th-century American art; we saw little of that. In fact, judging solely from our first visit, this museum is devoted as much to artifacts of the history of New York City as it is to art. During our visit, for example, we saw a modest but riveting exhibit of relics from the September 11, 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center, a more substantial exhibit of relics from the two centuries during which slavery was prevalent in New York City (a pair of slave foot shackles is very sobering), and a very large and altogether fascinating exhibit on General U. S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee. — photos, paintings, uniforms, swords, and other good stuff. We didn’t have nearly enough time to do justice to Grant and Lee.
That aside, the New-York Historical Society startled us with some marvelous American art, including some very well-known paintings — like William Holbrook Beard’s The Bulls and the Bears, painted in 1879. We knew about this picture — a gory, fantastic allegory of Wall Street, set in front of the New York Stock Exchange — but we had no idea that it was here. What a black sense of humor Beard must have had (the bears are actually tearing the flesh of the hapless bulls)! Seeing the original of this famous image, we thought Beard must have been thinking about Nicolas Poussin’s 1637 painting The Rape of the Sabines (the version in the Louvre, not the one at the Met, which doesn’t have all that architecture in the background) when he designed his picture.
Another surprise: Robert Walter Weir’s St. Nicholas. The original Saint Nick! Well, not exactly, although Weir painted his picture in 1837, just 15 years after Clement Clarke Moore published his poem “The Night Before Christmas.” We did a double-take. Hadn’t we seen an original version of this famous picture before? Yes, we had. We couldn’t remember where, so we went home, checked our notes, and found that it was in Youngstown, Ohio, when we were visiting the Butler Institute of American Art a couple of years ago. (Shown here is the Butler’s picture; its details are slightly different from the one at the N-YHS.)
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill’d all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose
Further research yielded the fact that Weir actually painted four very similar versions of St. Nicholas. Another is at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.
It turns out that the New-York Historical Society has a first-rate group of 19th-century American genre paintings. Again, to our delight, these were pictures we mostly recognized, even though we’d never seen them in person. Like Eastman Johnson’s 1859 Negro Life at the South — is this his masterpiece? And William Sidney Mount’s Undutiful Boys — surely one of his finest. The N-YHS has several of Asher B. Durand’s early paintings, which are in a “genre” mode, like his Peter Stuyvesant and the Trumpeter. Till our visit, the only works of Durand’s that we’d seen were his landscape paintings.
Unfortunately, all of these paintings, and dozens more, are very badly displayed in crowded glass cases. (Our photo of Tompkins H. Matteson’s iconic 1847 painting The Last of His Race gives just an idea of the deplorable viewing conditions.) There’s glare everywhere, and many of the pictures are either too high or too low to see well. Clearly the N-YHS doesn’t have enough room for its collection — but can’t the curators do better than this?
In fact, this museum has only one proper picture gallery. Fortunately, it’s a large, long, fine space with natural light. Currently it displays a wonderful selection of paintings by artists from the Hudson River School, all from the N-YHS’s own collection. This was the exhibit that enticed us to the museum in the first place, and we found it hard to leave it.
If we had to pick favorites, they might be be Asher Durand’s gentle and evocative Black Mountain from the Harbor Islands, Lake George (above), a part of upstate New York we know well — or perhaps George Henry Boughton’s 1858 Winter Twilight Near Albany, a shimmering work that melds landscape and genre painting. The gallery also included Thomas Cole’s celebrated and endlessly interesting series of five large allegorical paintings, entitled collectively The Course of Empire, one of which appears at the beginning of this post.
Emboldened by the ease with which we had reached the Upper West Side in the first place, we ventured to stroll across Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a fine fall day, and we were glad we had our camera.