An enthralling evocation of New York in the inter-war years, Maxwell Ashby Armfield's image captures the romance of Madison Square Park at twilight.
The young artist and his wife had set sail for New York in the spring of 1916, in search of new contexts for their artistic, literary, and community theatre ideas. These had become unsustainable in the climate of wartime Europe. The studio they took at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park offered dramatic views of the city, in stark contrast to their previous residencies in London and the Cotswolds.
Amfield spent much of that year painting 'the beauty of the New York skyscraper - great glistening precipices of steel, concrete and glass'. His reaction must have been endemic amongst those who visited New York at that time. Armfield's response was informed, too, by his admiration of aesthetics driven by necessity. The city skyscrapers were built tall to make the most of Manhattan's limited space. Their step-like formation, resembling the ancient terraced cities of pre-Colombian America of Assyria, resulted from zoning laws limiting their height. Armfield considered them 'impressive and beautiful for exactly the same reason that the Egptian caverns of ponderous stone are beautiful and impressive'; both employed relatively unadorned material to economic advantage and striking effect.
Armfield was also enamoured of the view afforded as you approached New York by sea. For him, the vision of 'fantastical and impossible...sky towers...rear[ing] into the intense blue air', unsullied by the 'foul miasma' of industrial pollution, bettered the Venetian equivalent. Although acknowledging the high rents 'on this narrow spit of earth', he found the tall buildings inspiring in their simplicity, reflecting 'the peculiar character of the people who built them and who work in them'. He relished the alternate patterning created by the rectangular and arch-topped windows, so much so that he and his wife prepared an (unpublished) book called 'Windows of New York's Skyscrapers'.
The present lot, an exceptionally fine painting, was executed for Armfield's first American exhibition at the Arlington Galleries, New York City, in the spring of 1917. It demonstrates the pointillist technique which Armfield admired in the paintings of Segantini, and which he adapted to both oil and his favourite medium of tempera. The walkers enjoying Madison Square are reduced to configurations of ant-like forms. Their size throws the buildings, fractured by the gold lozenge-shapes of lit windows, into even grander relief.
American critics commented on Armfield's original technique: 'flat tones of thin color spread on coarse canvas in a low color key of tawny brown and chalky grays, so that his work must be viewed from a distance to secure its best effect'. They felt that Armfield's response to the 'newness of impressions' had resulted in a 'fresher, larger and more adventurous outlook' than evident in his work pre-America. In the words of one reviewer, Madison Square revealed 'an entertaining conception of our metropolis, representing the essentials of things so that people may get a new view of them...In these days when one sees so much in art exhibitions that is pure plagiarism, it is refreshing to come upon a man like Maxwell Armfield...who has kept pace with modern thought, yet said things his own way'.
We are grateful to Dr Nicola Gordon Bowe for her help in preparing this catalogue entry. Dr Gordon Bowe is preparing a book on the artist.