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Chatham Square

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Chatham Square

Artist: Dong Kingman (American, 1911 - 2000)

Date: 1947
Medium: Transparent and opaque watercolor on wove paper
Overall: 21 13/16 x 29 3/4in. (55.4 x 75.6cm)
Signed: Recto, lower right (dark blue paint): 'KINGMAN 47'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 48.27
Label Text
"Chatham Square" depicts an elevated train stop at a busy intersection on New York’s Lower East Side. When Dong Kingman first visited New York in the 1940s, the city was an inspiration to him. He said, “‘I am furious with color. New York surprises me. The subway [is] so fast, so terrific. I like things in speed. . . . Beauty all over. The tall buildings, the people are so interesting.’” Kingman’s paintings of the city are filled with patterns and the play of light and shadow to underscore this urban liveliness.

Mary E. Murray
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Text Entries

Chatham Square depicts an elevated train stop at a busy intersection on New York’s Lower East Side, between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Kingman first visited New York after a cross-country journey,  funded by a 1942-43 Guggenheim Fellowship, from his home in San Francisco. The city was a revelation to him. A New Yorker profile quoted Kingman: “‘I am furious with color,’ he says. ‘New York surprises me. The subway [is] so fast, so terrific. I like things in speed. . . . Beauty all over. The tall buildings, the people are so interesting.’”[1] Kingman’s dealer, Alan Gruskin of the Midtown Galleries, noted that the artist’s compositions grew livelier and his palette more varied after being in New York; Chatham Square does capture the visual surfeit of the urban landscape.[2] Kingman depicted figures waiting on a platform that is festooned with advertising and rail paraphernalia.[3] Above them looms a building set on a diagonal to the rail line. Although the sky is dark and turbulent, the façade of this structure and the platform are curiously illuminated, as if there were a break in the clouds. Kingman also depicted the architectural details of several other buildings, as well as a more distant lower Manhattan skyline.[4] He bisected the composition with the train structure and overhead power lines, a device he would later renounce: “One lesson I have learned in my years of painting is that it would be distracting to have a direct line, or lines, cut across the top of a picture, or for that matter, across any part of a picture.”[5] 


With Chatham Square, the effect Kingman achieves is one of a vivacious, atmospheric image in which the varied surfaces of the city are spontaneously captured as a unified organism. His witty, sometimes goofy, style belies, however, the calculated planning Kingman’s watercolors require. His traditional technique of layering ever-darker layers of wash demand that he understand composition, chiaroscuro, and color patterns very well prior to picking up a paintbrush. Therefore, while he prefered to begin a composition on location—“If I have to sit on the street to paint, I do,”[6] he once said—he did not feel compelled to complete it on site. In fact, Kingman contended that by remaining at the scene he might find himself mistakenly documenting the locale rather than creating a work of art. He therefore prefered to move to the studio, where he was free to make aesthetic rather than reportorial decisions.[7]


During the 1940s Kingman began to enjoy a great deal of success.  In addition to receiving two Guggenheim Fellowships, he had several one-artist shows at the Midtown Galleries in New York, from which numerous museums and private collectors nationwide acquired his watercolors.[8] In the midst of this renown, fellow Midtown artist and MWPI School of Art Director William Palmer invited Kingman to be a visiting artist at the school from March 8 to March 18, 1948. During this residency, Kingman worked with students, gave a demonstration, and had two exhibitions, one comprised of twelve watercolors and one called a “study exhibition” consisting of sketches, materials, and explanations of techniques.[9] In May of that year the institute announced the purchase of Chatham Square for its fledgling permanent collection, along with works by the two visiting artists immediately preceding Kingman: Philip Guston’s Porch No. 2, and Hugo Robus’s Woman Combing Her Hair.[10]

[1] “Dong Kingman,” The New Yorker, Oct. 10, 1942, 10. 

[2] Alan D. Gruskin, The Watercolors of Dong Kingman and How the Artist Works (New York and London:  Studio Publications, 1958), 30.  Kingman moved to Brooklyn after World War II.

[3] Gruskin, ibid., found that Kingman was especially enamored of the elevated train and that his paintings of them “contribute vividly to the aesthetic record of a vanished era” in New York. 

[4] In the building at right, Kingman painted stylized figures looking out the windows.  Kingman used this device frequently; see, for example, Atlanta, Ga., House by a Railroad, or Brooklyn, U.S.A., in Gruskin, Watercolors of Dong Kingman, 75, 76, and 77, respectively.

[5] Ibid., 129, 132.

[6] Dong Kingman, interview with Karl Fortess, Dec. 23, 1971, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[7] Ibid.  By way of example, Kingman described painting a Japanese pagoda one summer but, upon returning to the studio, decided that it would be a more effective image as a winter scene, with snow, which is how he painted it.

[8] Kingman typically enjoyed favorable reviews for his Midtown shows.  See, for example, Judith Kay Reed, “Dong Kingman,” Art Digest 21 (Mar. 15, 1947):  11, who describes the artist as an “expert designer” and an “alert observer” with a good sense of humor.  See also Reed, “New York Scenes by Dong Kingman,” Art Digest 22 (Mar. 1, 1948):  13; “Dong Kingman,” Art News 47 (Apr. 1948):  51; Margaret Lowengrund, “Productive Year,” Art Digest 23 (Apr. 1, 1949):  15.

[9] See MWPI Bulletin (Mar. 1948).

[10] Ibid.

copyright 2016, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute

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