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Washington Bridge

On view

Washington Bridge

Artist: Ernest Lawson (American, 1873 - 1939)

Date: 1910
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Overall: 25 x 30 1/4in. (63.5 x 76.8cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 58.42
Text Entries

On July 4, 1842, one of the wonders of American engineering opened to the public. Designed by John Bloomfield Jervis of Oneida County, New York, it was known as High Bridge. Spanning the Harlem River between the Bronx and Manhattan, the bridge and its fifteen tall arches carried not only pedestrian traffic but also the critical pipelines that fed water to Manhattan from the Croton Reservoir system. In 1927 its original design was altered; the five stone arches that carried the bridge across the riverbed were replaced by a single ribbed steel span, leaving alone granite arch on one bank and a series of nine on the other.

An equally imposing bridge across the Harlem River, just upriver from High Bridge, was completed in 1888. Built by William Hutton, the Washington Bridge had two great steel arches, each in turn spanning the river and the railroad tracks that ran along the east bank. Terminating in three stone arches at one end and four on the other, the Washington Bridge presented a distinctive silhouette which would be emulated in the later reconstruction of High Bridge.(1)

These facts are crucial to distinguishing among Lawson’s many Harlem River bridge paintings. Fascinated by modern urban construction, Lawson—no matter how broad his brushwork or impressionistic his surfaces—took great care when it came to essential structural differences. The Utica painting, dating to about 1910 when it was purchased by Edward W. Root, was originally identified as a scene of High Bridge. It is instead a picture of Washington Bridge as seen from a park on the east, or Bronx, side of the river.(2)

The only pure landscape painter among The Eight, Lawson had an enormous stylistic range. It includes lyrical, softly-keyed paintings that resemble the works of Alfred Sisley, tonalist nocturnes influenced both by Whistler and by Julian Alden Weir (Lawson’s teacher, with  John H. Twachtman, in the 1890s), hot, dry, “expressionist” pictures such as those of Spain from 1916-17, and the scenes of upper Manhattan done in thick layers of brilliant color, applied with a palette knife, which came to be described as having the appearance of “crushed jewels.”

The Utica picture falls between several of these stylistic modes. Its thick strokes and rapidity of execution give it an air of being sketched en plain air, of being casual, even inattentive to detail. Its late winter palette—reddish browns, tans, and dark blue-greens achieves balance through subtle placement and emphasis. The structural rhythms of the gazebos in the foreground are echoed in the buildings and bridge abutments on the opposite shore, while the dark band of the river divides the canvas almost equally into “upper” and “lower” halves, emphasizing the painting’s flatness. In short, however spontaneous the painting may appear to the viewer, it is tightly controlled, conscious of achieving its effects, which include the precise notation of time of day, of season and, above all, of place. In Lawson’s paintings, the permanence of the urban fabric acts as a foil to the inevitable transience of nature.

 

Notes

1. An extended discussion of the history of the Harlem River bridges can be found in Sharon Reier, The Bridges of New York (New York: Quadrant Press, 1977).

2. The question of the identity of the bridge in the Utica painting was initially raised by Henry D. Blumberg of Little Falls, N.Y., in correspondence with the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art in October of 1985. At that time the museum identified the painting as a view of High Bridge. Mr. Blumberg, noting the steel arch in the painting, rightly stated that, if it was a view of High Bridge, it would have to date after 1927. However, as a painting of Washington Bridge—its correct identification—it could date to any year after 1888, which is to say, to c. 1910, the date originally supplied by Edward Root. The problem of identifying the bridges in Lawson’s paintings was first raised in a footnote in Adeline L. Karpiscak, Ernest Lawson, 1873- 1929, exhibition catalog (Tucson: University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1979), p. 33, n. 8.

 

 

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