Fourteenth Street School
Summary of Fourteenth Street School
Centered around the bustling Union Square in downtown New York, the artists of the Fourteenth Street School depicted an array of urban denizens before and during the Great Depression. Working in a realistic manner, artists such as Kenneth Hayes Miller, Raphael Soyer, Isabel Bishop, and Reginald Marsh, painted the working men and women, the middle-class shoppers, and the sidewalk hawkers with humanity and, at times, with a touch of cynicism. Disavowing modernist calls for art for art's sake, the Fourteenth Street School reveled in the messiness of ordinary life and used their painting to call attention to the lives of ordinary people.
Falling out of favor with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, the artists of the Fourteenth Street School persisted with figurative painting and were influential for younger artists, such as Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, who pursued figurative painting after World War II. Subsequently their work has been reassessed and put into the context of larger, international trends of figurative paintings.
- Rather than depicting the idealized and romanticized rural subjects of contemporaneous American Regionalism, the Fourteenth Street School painters concentrated on urban scenes, embracing the grittiness and dynamism of the city. Their commitment to Social Realism shined a light on the working poor as well as a new, emerging middle class.
- Throughout the paintings of the Fourteenth Street School artists, one senses the tensions between traditional values, mass culture, and a burgeoning consumerism even in the midst of the Depression. From classical-looking middle class shoppers to the uglier sides of department store sells, the Fourteenth Street School depicted the complex, sometimes paradoxical, aspects of capitalist culture in the urban environment.
- Most of the artists in the Fourteenth Street School looked to the artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, particularly Michelangelo, Peter Paul Rubens, and Rembrandt, as models not only for their figural depictions but also for their spatial compositions and arrangements. This emulation of the Old Masters imbued their modern subjects with humanity and gravitas.
- Many of the artists depicted images of the New Woman in various guises. As women gained more social and financial independence, securing work outside of the home, new styles and attitudes developed, and the artists variously engaged these developments in their paintings.
Overview of Fourteenth Street School
In 2018, a Guerrilla collective called The Illuminator made the buildings of Fourteenth Street in the East Village their canvas to protest the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. But this was not the first time the area has proven an artistically rich locus. In the 1920s, this bustling thoroughfare was the birthplace of a school of art which gave new color to the Great Depression.
Important Art and Artists of Fourteenth Street School
This painting depicts a fashionably dressed matron in three quarters pose as she leaves the bank, its marble columns framing her within a context of material prosperity and institutional power. As Ellen Wiley Todd wrote, "Miller orchestrated the picture...to make her an image of classical stability and repose. Placed close to the picture plane, she dominates the scene .. .Her columnar stance - arms held close to her rounded body - partakes of the architectonic qualities of the massive supports behind her." Miller's treatment was influenced by Rubens' and Renoir's images of women bathers, but rather than the vitality of the nude, he emphasizes a contemporary sense of material prosperity and feminine propriety. The woman's fashionable clothing, her cloche hat, fur-collared coat, and white leather gloves, are essential elements of the work; as Todd noted, "Miller transformed the shopper into a goddess of commerce." The controlled brushwork further contributes to a sense of polished perfection, while at the same time the architectural columns visually evoke "the pillars of society," and the woman's gaze, not meeting the viewer's, conveys a sense of urbanity and class disdain.
Miller's innovative images of matronly shoppers had a dominant influence upon Bishop, Marsh, Laning, and the Soyer brothers and became a defining characteristic of the movement. Largely forgotten at the time of his death in 1952, Miller's work was rediscovered in the 1970s and has been featured in several contemporary exhibitions.
This work depicts two well-dressed matrons, accompanied by a young boy and a small dog, huddled together facing into a strong wind, while a man, hanging on to his hat, passes by on the left and a woman passes on the right. Though the painting is only 8 ¾ x 6 ½ inches, the figures seem statuesque and monumental. The Rubenesque figures and strong arms and legs are depicted with a three dimensionality that is emphasized by the flat background and the repeating curves of their forms and clothing. The animated movement of the wind reveals and sculpts the group, pressing the women's dresses against them and unifying the group.
Raised in Illinois, Laning later moved to New York where he studied with Sloan, Marsh, and Miller. He originally rejected Miller's artistic approach as too conservative, but after delving into the works of Peter Paul Rubens on a 1929 European trip, he studied with the artist for several years upon his return. Laning wrote of his mentor, "He had a remarkable faculty for making art the thing one lived for .. My identification with him was almost complete for a time. I guess I turned him into my father." Here, in this depiction of two older middle-class women, dressed in the flapper style of the 1920s, as they are out shopping, Laning has adopted Miller's preferred subject but added his own contribution of dramatic narrative. Laning's emphasis on the unsettling moments of ordinary life was a unique contribution to the movement. In the 1930s, he created a number of notable murals for the WPA that have become his most famous works.
This painting shows a women's fitting room, where a woman just right of center, her arms positioned in a classical pose, is trying on a gold dress as she is attended by an older salesclerk. To the right, three well-dressed women converse as they stand in a circle, the curving swirls of their clothing and limbs evoking Renaissance paintings of the three Graces, a configuration that Miller employed in other works as well. The woman in gold is both matronly and voluptuous, and viewers of the time would probably have recognized her pose as reminiscent of "the Jean Harlow publicity pose and its overt display of a potent and, as some contemporaries would have argued, liberated sexual self," as art historian Ellen Wiley Todd explained. The strong perspective of the gold and silver tiled floor, emphasized by the horizontal and vertical lines of the walls, evokes a classical setting thus underscoring the comparisons of the modern shoppers with ancient goddesses.