- Historic Sites
The American City
A gathering of turn-of-the-century paintings
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Our cities began as muddy accidents. First settlers would set up shop on a promising spit of land; a steamer would tie up at a convenient bend in a river; two railroads would cross on an empty prairie; and soon there would be some warehouses, a saloon, a brothel, a jail, a church—a city. For the most part the cities grew up unplanned, a sort of cancerous response to the wealth being produced in and around them. Smoky, rough, and full of sin, they were a constant source of moral unease to the populace of an America that still was proud of its rural wellsprings. We have a whole literature of lugubrious songs, stories, and poems about healthy country types who went to make their fortunes in the cities, only to wallow in the fleshpots there and perish in terrible degradation. But these cautionary effusions probably discouraged only those who couldn’t have made a go of it in the first place. The fact is that the years between 1880 and 1910 marked an unparalleled migration to urban areas, one that drew its impetus not so much from European immigration as from native Americans leaving the farm for more profitable- if less comforting—fields. In 1860 our urban population stood at a little over six million. By 1880 it was well over fourteen million, and by the turn of the century it was more than twice that. As city populations grew and our frontiers dwindled away, the great towns entered a fascinating and transitory phase, part municipal improvement and part chaos. We have endless photographs of this time, but unfortunately most of the painters were offended by it and fled the urban scene, not to return until the igSo’s. Except in New York, where the Ashcan School was active (one of its members, John Sloan, painted the magnificent Six O’Clock that appears at left), it was a rare painter who would deign to record the color and ferment of city life. But, as this unusual portfolio attests, there were some artists who saw beyond the dirt and noise, and their vision can tell us much that the photographs cannot. The best of their works can give us the strange, troubled thrill that Christopher Morley must have felt when he wrote: “All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful: but the beauty is grim.” On the following pages we move from east to west, following the sun across the country from New York to San Francisco, showing the American city as the artists saw and recorded it between the i88o’s and the First World War.