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Metropolitan Lives

Metropolitan Lives was written mainly by three scholars: Rebecca Zurier, the assistant professor in American art at the University of Michigan; Robert Snyder, cultural and social historian and managing editor of the Media Studies Journal; and Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator of the National Museum of American Art with a professional book reviewer, who didn’t write much but coordinated the entire book. Metropolitan Lives mostly describes the work of six artists of the Ashcan School, who painted what they saw in New York society, which reports the wide differences in wealth and race in the city.

Robert Snyder, a historian, who works with journalists, museum curators, and documentarians to explore the intersections of the past and present, and director of the American Studies Program at Rutgers-Newark, has written widely on New York City history and media issues as an associate professor in the Dept. of Arts, Culture and Media. Rebecca Zurier, who studies what American art and culture can tell us about comic strips, mass media, vernacular architecture, and other aspects of the visual and built environment, focuses her research around the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, a time when industrialization, urbanization, immigration redefined the modern United States. Virginia M. Mecklenburg, a Senior Curator of painting and sculpture, who had been a curator at the Smithsonian since 1979 and had organized more than twenty exhibits, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, has published works regarding the art and lives of artists.

Metropolitan Lives describes a big history, a type of historiography that exclusively covers the details of the given time period. The earliest evidence of portrait recordings comes as early as 1898 and last until 1917. Metropolitan Lives begins with a small description of New York surpassing Chicago, which hosted the 1893 World Fair. The Ashcan artists were among the many that moved to a quick changing metropolis-New York City; however, the city faced many problems: poverty and overcrowding. “George Bellows’ work, New York, 1911 reveals the experience of a challenge of an unprecedented scale and heterogeneity.”1 There was a friction that grew from a drawing of Mademoiselle Volezca’s special pose by Robert Henri’s Salome (1909). The work was rejected because of the naked legs and, more importantly, “a grave reminder of an outlawed portrayal of the biblical temptress demanding the head of John the Baptist.”2 Yet, Salome became more popular by the week as the authorities were unable to impede its growth. Jacob Riis’s photographs of the impoverished living in slums greatly contrasted with George Luks’s painting Hester Street (1905), portraying an affluent Jewish neighborhood.

The Metropolitan Lives continues describe in greater detail about New York’s vast improvement despite the many problems that were left unsolved. “[America’s] biggest urban area and capital of business, culture, and communication helped its economy and [diverse] population.”5 Already prospering from the from the transatlantic trade, coastal shipping, and interior commerce on the Erie Canal before the Civil War, New York merchants were the richest in the country six decades later while their neighbors living in the Five Points slums were nearly the poorest. The rich and poor lived quite close according to a 1900 map of New York City.6 Tensions between Native Protestants and immigrant Catholics flared as upper-class Catholics grew by the early twentieth century. Scrutinizing the vast difference of income in New York, half of the Ashcan artists-Henri, Sloan, and Bellows- are registered as members of the Socialist Party at the Madison Square Garden.10 The section, Picturing the City describes the life that Ashcan artists observed in New York: “Strokes of color help the viewer single out.”17 Guidebooks and bus tours were crucial to Ashcan artists who wanted to get across the city for them to report what they see. Arrived when horse-drawn wagons, old sailing ships, and counting houses were still the ordinary practice, Ashcan artists, bewildered by the rise of steamships, skyscrapers, and elevated trains, were drawn into a conclusion of an unobstructed triumph of the modern metropolis. However, not everything was perfect. Traffic accidents caused more casualties than ever. Newspapers across the city reported for fifty deaths from the crash of a Brooklyn Elevated Train. Everett Shinn’s Night Life Accident (1908) testifies the setbacks for better technology on transportation.

The polyglot culture was so obviously seen at street level that an Italian immigrant felt that he wasn’t so foreign upon his arrival to the United States. George Luks’s Bleecker and Carmine Streets (1905) depicted an Italian enclave in southwest Greenwich Village. Some immigrant groups, however, don’t share similar characteristics. “Italian and Jews…were deeply divided among themselves…”8 So many immigrants abroad settled on the Lower East Side that it was mistaken for the eternal Old World. The poor adjusted in their tenements or slums by sleeping on rooftops shown in Shinn’s Tenements at Hester Street 1900. Ashcan artists captured the stereotypes of certain immigrants mentioned in newspaper and magazines. “Street Arab” was a common racist name used at the time. “Sloan’s Fishing for Lafayette (1908) depicts a black man in far more humane light.”21

Others sought to entertain themselves as much as time permits, and when more leisure time is received, young adolescences sought Coney Island, Luna Park, dance halls, and shopping for recreation. Sloan’s South Beach Brothers and Sunday Afternoon in Union Square (1912) and Sloan’s At the Top of the Swing (1913) show fashionable women drawing the attention of men. Shinn’s Footlight Flirtation (1912) tends to put more thought into women. “[This caused] single men to join with bachelor girls living independently and often supporting themselves.”22 Sloan’s Haymarket 1907 depicts a little distracted girl from the fashion of young women. Modern special Christmas shopping occurred at Macy’s in 1867 as a memorable way to deviate from the horrors of the Civil War. Shinn’s Window Shopping (1903) described women’s growing interest in shopping.

The Making of Six New York Artists is the longest chapter in the book. The authors describe each individual’s career journey entirely. All of the Ashcan artists trace the origin of their profession to Philadelphia except Bellows, who dwelled in Ohio.12 Although both men were from Philadelphia during the 1890’s, they shared ironically different traits; Shinn’s quick, evasive artistic ability as a newspaper artist was compared to Sloan’s slow, careful work as a designer for book covers and posters. Henri studied overseas in Europe, particularly France, where he learned from famous European artists for about two years before returning as a teacher who taught a mild mix of enthusiasms while painting.13 Because New York provided a good place for literary and aesthetic arts to flourish, all the Ashcan artists, Glackens, left for New York. Bellow’s Artists’ Evening (1916) describes private clubs and professional organizations gathering around and discussing their analysis of their works. The Ashcan artists were naturally inclined to create their standard Victorian style of painting causing them to be suspended from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and helping set the rise of “The Eight”, a short-lived and successful group that favored progressive change. Every Ashcan artist had their own conclusion drawn from what they’ve seen. “Shinn’s most [accomplished] work came from Harper’s Weekly published in 1900.”14

This book contains four theses: the unequal wealth distribution, the rise of women captivation, public construction, and the diverse immigrant population in New York City during the twentieth century. Each thesis has its own significance concerning the Ashcan artists. Sloan’s Woman’s Page 1905 shows that the working woman wasn’t able to fulfill their longings because of her low income.19 His Turning Out the Light (1905) draws much attention as the man lies in bed waiting for his sweetheart.22 Harry Pettit illustrated a 1916 postcard The Future of New York, a science-fiction view of a mechanized metropolis devoid of people.18  Luks’s Allen Street (1905) illustrates Catholic enclave at the Lower East Side. 20

Metropolitan Lives acknowledges many dozens of contributors who helped the creation of the book to be successful with a brief summary and a description of pictures within the text. The illustrations don’t reflect unique American values. Americans value democratic and fair institutions yet industry workers are tortured with extremely low wages.

The three authors’ perspectives are quite indifferent. Metropolitan Lives is read from a neutral stance. There are several reasons why. Virginia Mecklenburg’s personal biography stated that had over three decades of unbiased exhibition experience. Although Rebecca Zurier has focused much of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration redefined the United States, her personal biography stated that her research was without prejudice. Robert Snyder was interested into exploring the intersections of the past and present in a general overview.

Virginia Mecklenburg directed the Metropolitan Life exhibition during the trip of Sylvia Yount, the professional book reviewer. She stated that the exhibition’s title explicitly conveys the curators’ interpretive aims with hundreds of resources and was impressed by its organization. The National Museum of Art contained all the work from Ashcan School. The different musicological roles and perceived audiences had to do with the major difference between realizing the exhibition at its two venues.

These artworks uncovered what New York City is like. Poverty, immigration, and industrial advance loomed the city. The artists illustrated such society as great memories of the accomplishments and grave reminders of the tragedies. This book presents history sufficiently on all sides rather than to pick an area and defame the other.

1. Zurier, Rebecca; Synder Robert.1 “Introduction”
2. Zurier, Rebecca; Synder Robert.1 14
3. Zurier, Rebecca; Synder Robert.1 19
4. Synder, Robert. “City in Transition”
5. Synder, Robert. 29
6. Synder, Robert. 31
7. Synder, Robert. 35
8. Synder, Robert. 37
9. Synder, Robert. 41
10. Synder, Robert. 44
11. Zurier, Rebecca. “The Making of Six New York Artists”
12. Zurier, Rebecca. 59
13. Zurier, Rebecca. 63
14. Zurier, Rebecca. 71
15. Zurier, Rebecca. 82
16. Zurier, Rebecca; Synder Robert.1 “Picturing the City”
17. Zurier, Rebecca; Synder Robert.1 85
18. Zurier, Rebecca; Synder Robert.1 88
19. Zurier, Rebecca; Synder Robert.1 115
20. Zurier, Rebecca; Synder Robert.1 116
21. Zurier, Rebecca; Synder Robert.1 130
22. Zurier, Rebecca; Synder Robert.1 173
23. Zurier, Rebecca; Synder Robert.1 178