In December 1909, Bellows executed two Manhattan cityscapes (this one and The Bridge, Blackwell’s Island [fig. 1] [fig. 1] George Bellows, The Bridge, Blackwell's Island, 1909, oil on canvas, Toledo Museum of Art, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey. Image: Photography Incorporated, Toledo) depicting the nearly completed Blackwell’s Island Bridge, now known as the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge or 59th Street Bridge [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Entry from artist’s Record Book about Lone Tenement, The Ohio State University Libraries’ Rare Books & Manuscripts Library and the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. These paintings, displaying the artist’s bravura style, are thematically linked to his four views of the Pennsylvania Station excavation site (e.g., the Gallery’s Blue Morning) in that they depict a major construction project in the modernization of New York City. The third of eight structures built across the East River, the Queensboro Bridge passes over Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), linking midtown Manhattan with Long Island City in the borough of Queens. It was designed by the municipal department of bridges and completed in 1909 at a cost of about $20.8 million. The steel, two-tier bridge with two cantilevered spans was designed by Gustav Lindenthal and decorated with ornate ironwork and finials by the architect Henry Hornbostel. It is noteworthy as the first major bridge in New York City to depart from the suspension form.
The Bridge, Blackwell’s Island, with a view from beneath and slightly south of the bridge, looking across the East River over Blackwell’s Island toward Long Island City, was painted first. Bellows then produced The Lone Tenement, which depicts a solitary, six-story tenement building at the base of the bridge on the Manhattan side of the East River that, for some reason, had not been demolished when the area was razed. The tenement stands in the center of the composition, to the left of one of the bridge’s supporting piers, and is shown in a three-quarter view so that its front, distinguishable by the fire escape, and windowless sidewall, bearing the remnants of old advertising posters, face the viewer. The fence around the structure’s entrance indicates that it has been abandoned and may be awaiting demolition. A cluster of sketchily delineated human figures are gathered in the left foreground amid the expanse of muddy, half-melted snow, warming themselves before a fire. Two bare, narrow trees on the left echo the dilapidated state of the tenement building and contribute to the scene’s aura of desolation and abandonment. The bird’s-eye vista is oriented toward the northeast, encompassing Manhattan on the left, the East River, Blackwell’s Island, and the borough of Queens on the opposite shore.
Tenements were multiunit residential buildings first designed in the middle of the 19th century to serve as cheap rental housing for New York’s growing population of poor and working-class immigrants. These dank, dreary, and overcrowded dwellings soon became notorious for their unsanitary conditions. Social reformers identified tenements as breeding places of crime, disease, and poverty, and sought legislation to improve their conditions. The Tenement House Law of 1901 established higher standards of construction for new buildings and created the Tenement House Department to modernize what were thenceforward called “old law” tenements. Bellows, like his Ashcan School colleagues, often used tenement buildings in his views of impoverished neighborhoods like Manhattan’s Lower East Side and was certainly aware of their more sinister connotations. When the artist was asked about the tenements in his Excavation at Night (1908, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR), he responded: “Those tenement houses behind the excavation always give me the creeps. They’re just ordinary houses—but there is something about them that gets me.” He later used tenements as the setting in Cliff Dwellers [fig. 3] [fig. 3] George Bellows, Cliff Dwellers, 1913, oil on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund (16.4).
Blackwell’s Island also had numerous negative associations, because it was the site of an almshouse, a workhouse, and a penitentiary. By 1921, these institutions had become so notorious for overcrowding, violence, and drug trafficking that the city tried to improve the island’s reputation by renaming it Welfare Island. But despite its ominous allusions, The Lone Tenement is a remarkably expressive and appealing composition, in which mystery and an aura of plaintive eloquence is communicated through the artist’s exceptionally fluid brushwork and manipulation of light and color. Paint is applied in a variety of ways, from passages of thick impasto just to the left of the tenement building to a series of quick calligraphic marks used to describe a group of figures milling outside the building to the right. Bellows’s bold, expressive palette of oranges, golds, and violets, especially evident in the upper left quadrant of the canvas, is also distinctive.
When The Lone Tenement was exhibited in Bellows’s first one-man show at the Madison Art Galleries in 1911, a reviewer characterized it as “a lonely tenement house in a squalid district,” and remarked on the artist’s habit of depicting “the rough and raw side of the Metropolis.” Bellows may have wanted to convey a sense of the despoliation and lost communities that progress often leaves in its wake, or show that the status of the disenfranchised remains unaltered, and is perhaps even worsened, by urban modernization. The faceless wraiths cut adrift in the foreground seem as outmoded as the three-masted ship docked at the left, which had been rendered obsolete by such vessels as the steam-powered tugboat that churns along in the river. If it is not possible to fully discern Bellows’s attitude to the dispossessed underclasses depicted in The Lone Tenement, it is clear that he was responding to his teacher Robert Henri’s plea to make the neglected and overlooked areas of New York, where so many lived, worked, and died, primary subjects of modern art.
September 29, 2016