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Washington Square, New York

On view

Washington Square, New York

Artist: William C. Palmer (American, 1906 - 1987)

Date: 1928-1932
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Overall: 68 1/2 x 20in. (174 x 50.8cm) (each panel)
Signed: Recto, signed on man-hole cover
Credit Line: Gift of the Artist
Object number: 87.16
Text Entries

This folding screen was considered by the artist to be one of his most successful works. It was started in a mural class taught by Kenneth Hayes Miller at the Art Students League in 1928 or 1929. It was Palmer’s second attempt at a screen. The earlier one, known only from a photograph, depicted Central Park. (1) After the completion of the Empire State Building in 1931, Palmer painted the new Manhattan landmark into his depiction of Washington Square. He kept this work in his studio until making a gift of it to the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute in 1987. In an inventory of his studio taken after his recent death, it was noted that the last sketches in his sketchbook were for a new screen, a project he had discussed with Paul Schweizer.(2)

The influence of Miller in this screen has been seen in the treatment of the figures and buildings as well as the paint handling.(3) What remains to be explored is what the choice of this scene may have meant to the young artist and the dynamic relation of the images to the four angled panels of the screen as the artist intended it to be seen.

First there is the choice of the urban park, not surprising for a young man who comes to the excitement of the city after growing up in a more pastoral setting. Palmer was born and for the most part raised in Des Moines, Iowa. Other artists focused on more urban aspects of New York City: Robert Henri, its mean streets; Joseph Stella, its soaring Brooklyn Bridge; John Marin, its towering buildings; Reginald Marsh, its marquees and beaches. By contrast to these sorts of images Palmer’s Washington Square has a characteristic relaxed pace and attentive decorum. In the scene, women and children have gathered to stroll or rest on park benches. The one man seen in profile on the second panel was identified by Palmer as a self-portrait.(4) He converses with a fashionably dressed woman who holds the leash of a small terrier. Palmer's delight in the urban variety of women's fashion is apparent in the attention he paid to details of costume, the fur pieces, and the women’s variously styled hats. Palmer revealed that he did not paint these panels outdoors on the Square, but worked from memory and sketches. This lends weight to the conception of these panels as Palmer’s ideal urban landscape—himself surrounded by fashionable women, a few animals, plants, and the triumphal arch which identifies the park as Washington Square.

This triumphal arch was for Palmer a souvenir of Paris, from which he had recently returned after a period of study with muralist M. Baudoin. Palmer’s choice of site for this painting reveals his inclination toward the green  earth and natural forms, yet the prominence of the Square’s arch and detailing of costume also recall Palmer’s love of the sophistication of city fashions and the urban historical monuments that Paris had herself borrowed from Rome.

The vantage on the arch permits a clear view of the setback arrangement of the tower of the hotel beyond. The dominance of the most famous American architectural form, the skyscraper, (reinforced by Palmer’s celebration of the completion of the Empire State Building) suggests Palmer’s ultimate loyalty. He includes the arch for its beauty, but the distinctively American skyscraper for its overpowering size and power. His sympathy lies with his American contemporaries excited by their new vision of the twentieth-century city.

Another aspect of the work of particular concern to the artist was the relation of the angled placement of the panels (enabling it to stand free) to the action within the painting. As arranged by the artist, the screen’s outer panels should be angled toward the viewer. Thus the woman on the left could more easily walk by the couple standing in the second panel, instead of colliding with them as is suggested when the screen is flattened. Above this striding woman, the sinuous linear curves of a leafless tree knit the first panel to the second. Below her, the position of the terrier, the angle of its protective gaze, and the pattern in the paving relate the first panel to the complementary angle of the second panel.

As the second panel recedes from the viewer, so does the scene. The physical recession at the middle of the screen is matched by the most recessed part of the image: the deep perspectival rendering of the length of Fifth Avenue. The circular fountain, fence, and curb accented by the flowering plant in the foreground, as well as the height of the hotel in the background, bring the viewer forward away from the depth of the avenue. This circularity is accentuated at the right side by the angled path of the bus in the background and the two striding women in the foreground, whose path leads back into the scene. The axis created by the fountain almost acts like a carousel, relating the figures on the right and left in a dynamic unity.

 

Notes

1. An illustration of this screen is in the William C. Palmer papers in the archives of the Daniel Burke Library, Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y.

2. This inventory is in the curatorial files of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art. Also found in his studio were Janet W. Adams’s book Decorative Folding Screens (New York: Viking Press, 1982), and vol. 17, no. 2 of the American Art Journal, which featured on the cover a photograph of Thomas W. Dewing’s screen, Morning Glories, 1900 (Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute).

3. Howard D. Spencer, William Palmer: A Retrospective, exhibition catalog (Wichita, Kans.: Wichita Art Museum, 1986), p. 6.

4. Conversation with the author, July 1987.

 

Copyright
Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s).