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American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915: Cliff Dwellers by George Bellows

Joyce Mendelsohn and Annie Polland—two historians of New York’s Lower East Side—discuss Cliff Dwellers, George Bellows's 1913 depiction of the neighborhood, now on view in the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915.


Barbara Weinberg: This is Barbara Weinberg, curator—with my colleague Carrie Rebora Barratt—of the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The exhibition includes more than a hundred iconic works by many of America's most acclaimed artists, who tell stories about their own times by depicting ordinary people engaged in life's tasks and pleasures. Their paintings range in date from the Revolutionary era to the eve of World War I.

In Cliff Dwellers, George Bellows captures the colorful crowd on New York City's Lower East Side. It appears to be a hot summer day. People spill out of tenement buildings onto the streets, stoops, and fire escapes. Laundry flaps overhead and a street vendor hawks his goods from his pushcart in the midst of all the traffic. In the background, a trolley car heads toward Vesey Street.

The painting, made in 1913, suggests the new face of New York. Between 1870 and 1915, the city's population grew from one-and-a-half to five million, largely due to immigration. Many of the new arrivals—Italian, Jewish, Irish, and Chinese—crowded into tenement houses on the Lower East Side—the area north of the Brooklyn Bridge, south of Houston Street, and east of the Bowery. Among them were thousands of Eastern European Jews, who found temporary or permanent shelter along streets such as East Broadway, the setting for Cliff Dwellers. The city had never seen this kind of density before.

We invited two historians of the neighborhood—Joyce Mendelsohn and Annie Polland—to comment on Bellows's painting. Here's Joyce Mendelsohn, who wrote the authoritative book The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited.

Joyce Mendelsohn: My grandparents came from Russia, settled on the Lower East Side. My parents were born there. I like the fact that Bellows left his serene block on East 19th Street in the Gramercy Park neighborhood to ride on the Third Avenue El or on the subway to capture the daily life of ordinary people of all ages on East Broadway. And my first impression of the painting is that it is an accurate description of an extremely congested street in an incredibly overcrowded neighborhood.

At the turn of the century, the Lower East Side had a population density exceeding that of Bombay, India—hard to believe, but true. When I look at the painting, what we see are people pushing their way through crowds, as a crammed streetcar inches forward. Mothers and small children are getting out of stifling rooms. Tenement apartments that were typically three hundred square feet housed as many as ten people.

Streets served as outdoor spaces for socializing for adults and play for children. On the right of the painting, two women are sitting outside an old row house converted to multiple apartments, while others are looking out of windows at the scene below, so that you see people on all levels in this painting.

A man sits on the railing. A woman climbs the steps with her bundles and another is hanging laundry on her fire escape. There's a tremendous amount of energy in this painting. Three children sit on the sidewalk. A mother is admonishing a small child. On the left of the painting, boys are horsing around in the street.

This is, essentially, real. But he's expanded the envelope into his particular fantasy of what the Lower East Side would have looked like. And maybe he was looking at it from a propaganda point of view, if he was pushing for some kind of social reform, such as housing reform or health reform. He would hope that a painting like this would serve as a document of what immigrant life was really like. But it wasn't quite as extreme as he's depicting it.

We're looking at 1913. The population of the Lower East Side at that time would have been mostly Eastern European and Russian Jews, who first started flowing into the Lower East Side after 1881, after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, and came in vast numbers.

In 1924 restrictive immigration laws were passed, which, in effect, shut the doors to immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. So this is a time capsule of the Russian Jewish population of the Lower East Side.

The sounds would have been cacophonous—people speaking in Russian, in Polish, in Yiddish, shouting out over each other to make themselves heard in this vast crowd, mothers calling their children, people calling from the fire escapes, the clang, clang, clang of the streetcar going by—and so it would have been an extraordinarily noisy scene.

Barbara Weinberg: And here, with her perspective on the painting, is Annie Polland of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Annie Polland: The buildings are tenement buildings, and the simple definition of a tenement is a building that houses more than three families living separately, each with their own kitchen. And the tenements came to be associated with these extremely crowded buildings that were built in the late nineteenth century.

And these buildings kind of took up the entire lot. In New York, typically the lots would be twenty-five feet by one hundred feet. And the tenement buildings could take up to ninety percent of that lot. And as you can see in the picture, they're side by side, so there's very little light and air coming through these buildings. And you can see that in the painting, because you see the way in which people are out on their fire escapes, people are out on the stoops.

When you lived on the Lower East Side and you lived in the tenement district, you didn't live in the tenements; you maybe slept there, you did some of your kitchen work, but a lot of your life is going to be happening on the stoop and in the streets. You know, a lot of your private life has to become public by virtue of how crowded and how the inadequacy of these housing conditions means that you're living your life kind of outside. And that's the beauty of this painting, is that he highlights the people who are on the stoop and kind of coming out of the window.

The name of the painting is Cliff Dwellers, and so, if you think of the tenements as the cliff, you know, the dwellers are these immigrants. And I like that his emphasis is not so much on the cliffs, but the emphasis seems to be on the people and how the people are dealing with the space and the conditions that have been given to them.

East Broadway was the heart of the Lower East Side in many ways. And these tenements, or these cliffs, are housing the places where people are living. The first floors, which are kind of obscured in this painting, but the first floors would have been storefronts. So there could be saloons, there could be grocery stores, there could be ice cream shops, soda shops. All sorts of commerce would be happening in this space. And also newspaper buildings were situated on East Broadway. And a lot of cafes would be here.

And even, you know, what could be in these buildings were synagogues, because there were about five hundred, six hundred synagogues in 1917. But most of them were not buildings built as synagogues but rather rented halls. So even in spaces like this, you could have a floor, a rented hall, that's a synagogue, or a dance hall or a club where the local union would meet. So these spaces, the cliffs, were not just where people lived, but where people did business and where people prayed and where people drank and where people danced, and it could be under one roof, all of that activity happening.

And then these stoops could often be places for community gathering. And, in fact, in 1902, when the price of kosher meat went up, I think, fifty percent, from twelve cents to eighteen cents a pound, women, housewives, gathered on these stoops, gathered their neighbors together and created a boycott. And they did this all on the streets and in the stoops, and they eventually were so successful that they brought the price of meat down to, I think, fourteen cents a pound.

I think that to some extent there are so many emotions of coming to a new place, of saying goodbye to everything you had known. Most likely, you're not going to go back. So you had to be really, I think, tough in a certain way to jump into this life.

Bellows, I think, understands what was so vibrant about this neighborhood was really these people and the energy that they had in coming to a new place and adapting, learning new languages, but also trying to preserve their culture and their traditions. And a lot of people like George Bellows—whether they were journalists, settlement house workers, people trying to work for government or in social services—they came to the Lower East Side and they talked about the conditions, but many of them also talked about these people and how amazing a lot of these people were and the stories that they had to tell.

Barbara Weinberg: This work, with all the other great paintings in the exhibition, can be viewed online at metmuseum.org in the special feature for American Stories. There—as on the Audio Guide program in the exhibition galleries themselves—you can also hear a range of perspectives by Carrie Rebora Barratt and me, as well as by artists, historians, and other experts from a variety of fields.

The exhibition is made possible by Alamo Rent A Car, The Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Oceanic Heritage Foundation.

It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Audio Guide program is sponsored by Bloomberg.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from October 12, 2009, through January 24, 2010.

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