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Fourteenth Street School

Fourteenth Street School Collage

Started: 1920

Ended: 1940

"My world is through my window. I look out of my window and I feel I've eaten."

Isabel Bishop

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 Frielicher, 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.

Key Ideas

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.
Detail of <i>End of 14th Street Crosstown Line</i> (1936) by Reginald Marsh details the crowded, bustling streets of a vibrant and gritty New York City.

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.

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