Walker Evans, [Signs, New York City], 1928-29
During the 1920s, Manhattan became a mecca of consumerism and with that electric signs were filling the city at breakneck pace. The signs in this photograph, by American photographer Walker Evans, flashed the company’s name and its main two products atop the roof of the Fisk Building on Central Park South. With the increasing popularity of the automobile and the booming population, there were more than half a million new vehicles on the roadways in New York between 1918 and the end of the 1920s. This congested the city with traffic, giving passengers plenty of time to gaze above at the new landscape of flashing advertisements.
Georgia O’Keeffe, The Radiator Building: Night, New York, 1927
The American Radiator Building, a New York landmark, was designed by Raymond Hood and completed in 1924. New York became a modern industrial city in the 20s conquering the engineering of the skyscraper, which transformed the city forever. In a night view of the skyscraper, Georgia O’Keeffe admires this feat. She paints the building with its crown glowing against the night sky to represent the city’s modernity. This painting is a part of a series by O’Keeffe completed between 1925 and 1930 that centered on the theme of skyscrapers, which was an invention gaining worldwide attraction and interest during this time. The Radiator Building in particular became a popular attraction with its black materials and unique floodlighting at the gilded top.
Florine Stettheimer, The Cathedrals of Broadway, 1929
The Cathedrals of Broadway is one of four paintings created between 1929 and 1942 that compose Stettheimer’s cathedral series. The series is a commentary on New York’s cultural institutions at the time and depicts the spectacle of life in a city that never sleeps. In this particular painting, she captures the excitement that surrounded cinema in New York during this decade with neon lights, banners and ornate embellishment. In addition, the atmosphere in the painting is quintessential of the lavish Times Square theaters that were being built in the 1920s, which are what Stettheimer is referring to as the ‘Cathedrals of Broadway.’ Silent films were no longer popular and are shown in the painting with the word silence roped off, while talkies were on the rise as shown on the large screen in the middle of the painting. Broadway and Times Square became the spirited, neon center of New York with theaters booming in popularity after the war due to an increase of national wealth. Stettheimer successfully shows the increasing consumerism during this era, and this work can be used to reinforce the idea that Broadway reached its prime during the 1920s.
Howard Thain, The Great White Way – Times Square, N.Y.C., 1925
Howard Thain’s painting of Times Square further captures the rise of the neighborhood in the 1920s. In a view of the brightly lit square, Thain captures the post-war commercial activity of midtown. Broadway was given the nickname of ‘The Great White Way’ around that time because it became the first street in America to be fully lit by electricity. Crowds would come just to stare at the signs, making the area the capital of tourism, advertising and movies.
Palmer Hayden, Jeunesse, 1927
A clear representation of the Harlem Renaissance, Palmer Hayden’s Jeunesse portrays the energy of a young African American couple dancing in a nightclub in Harlem. The Great Migration of African Americans from South to North after World War I not only gave them new freedom and excitement, as Hayden portrays in this painting, but also brought an explosion of African American culture to Harlem, including jazz music. Speakeasy night clubs began opening in the neighborhood, the first and most legendary of which was the Cotton Club. These establishments drew in crowds of wealthy New Yorkers flocking to Harlem to see prominent African American entertainers, dance to live jazz music and imbibe illegal booze, as prohibition was in full force.
Winsor McCay, Bootleg Whiskey, Crime, Dope, 1920
This illustration comes from American cartoonist and animator, Winsor McCay. He depicts the perceived afflictions of the city at the time, including bootleg liquor, crime, dope and get rich quick schemes. With the passing of the 18th amendment in 1920, prohibition took full effect during this decade causing 75 percent of the bars in the city to close. This led to an uptick in organized crime as Italian-American gangs entered the bootleg liquor business, becoming skilled at smuggling, money laundering and bribing police officers.
John Sloan, Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street, 1928
Women earned the right to vote at the start of the decade, giving them more freedom than ever before. The new women of the 1920s had a carefree attitude and fully participated in New York City nightlife donning short haircuts to convey their newfound freedom. More women were working white-collar jobs and, for the first time, were engaging in capitalism with their own money. In John Sloan’s Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street, Sloan captures the new energy of the nightlife scene in New York in the 1920s, focusing on young women fluttering about in activity while the men walk passively in the background. These jazz age women are unlike any others depicted in previous decades — they drink, dance and vote as they please.
Martin Lewis, The Glow of the City, 1929
American artist Martin Lewis was known for his drypoint etchings that captured street life in New York. In this work, Lewis depicts the drastic contrast of lifestyles that existed in the city during this period. While it was a decade known for its lavish style and prosperity, there were still many people living in gritty buildings who could only admire the glamour from afar. Here, Lewis depicts a woman on a fire escape amongst dark, squat buildings and hanging laundry, gazing at Manhattan’s Chanin Building glowing in the distance.
Charles Demuth, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928
In 1928, Charles Demuth translated William Carlos William’s poem The Great Figure into an abstract painting. In the poem, Williams describes how he watched a red fire truck with the number five on it clanging through Manhattan’s streets on a rainy night. Demuth recreates this with simplified forms, including the number five receding into the background. Intersecting and overlapping forms create an urban landscape that evokes the chaos and boisterous nature of a New York City street.
Bertram Hartman, Trinity Church and Wall Street, 1929
Painted in the year of the stock market crash at the end of the decade, Trinity Church and Wall Street captures Manhattan’s financial district and the energy of the modern city. Technologically advanced skyscrapers tower over the old gothic architecture of Trinity Church, commenting on society’s skewed priorities at the time. With this perspective, Hartman suggests that material needs have surpassed spiritual ones, which was a timely message leading up to the stock market crash.
By Chelsea Baldwin
Since graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fabric Styling and a Minor in Art History, Chelsea has been working as a trend forecaster in the fashion industry in New York. She enjoys traveling and exploring new cities as well as strolling through art museums, running and hiking, and she is always in search of the perfect cup of coffee. Chelsea is thrilled to be exploring the many cultural facets of NYC through writing.