After a memorable dinner at Lupa on Thompson Street, we walked quickly through the brisk night eager for the warmth of a bus leaving the village. Fittingly, we find ourselves precisely on President’s Day at this place facing the monument shimmering in the darkness. The Washington Square Arch was built to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our first President’s inauguration. And here we are, at the square on George Washington’s Birthday looking uptown from the base of Fifth Avenue, where patriotic colors of red, white and blue playfully adorn the Empire State Building in celebration of this day. Its cold and late, but I reach for my watercolors and brushes. The night skyline is framed so perfectly by the arch, I just can’t let this moment go by without trying to paint it. I’m not the first to succumb to this impulse and frankly I’m in great company. Watercolourist and blogger Poul Webb wrote inspiringly about some of these painters who captured the noble arch round-the-clock in all seasons.
Designed by architect Sanford White, in the early 20th century, the Washington Square Arch was situated in a wealthy enclave bordering working-class neighborhoods. The monument captivated members of New York’s Ashcan School, painting in the early 1900’s, including William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. Robert Henri, the group’s teacher encouraged his students to paint the dynamic of the street: its beauty and its brutal reality. One of the Ashcan group, George Bellows, is the subject of an exhibition, recently at the Met and soon to travel to London, providing the first comprehensive survey of Bellow’s work in almost fifty years. Bellow’s created some of the most moving depictions of the urban landscape when America was an emerging industrial giant. He captured the harshness of this rapidly changing society but also a timeless beauty that continues to captivate me in paintings such as The Lone Tenement and Blue Morning. Charles Baudelaire described this ability to extract the “eternal from the transitory” as searching for modernity.