At the turn of the century a progressive group of artists known as The Eight portrayed in their paintings with great clarity and brazenness the realities of urban life in New York. The Eight was comprised of Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Robert Henri, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, William Glackens, Arthur Davies and Ernest Lawson. Of the The Eight, Lawson was a landscape painter whose techniques allied him more closely with the Impressionists, though he found beauty in the rapidly growing urban environment of New York. Lawson was particularly enamoured of the diverse landscape located in the remote northern regions of Manhattan, including the Harlem River, Washington Heights and Inwood. In particular, Lawson explored the area in and around the confluence of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers known as Spuyten Duyvil which inspired a body of work that represents some of Lawson's most successful achievements. Spuyten Duyvil Creek from circa 1914 illustrates Lawson's intrigue with man-made structures and their relationship to the surrounding natural environment.
Spuyten Duyvil Creek is a narrow tidal straight approximately a half a mile long connecting the Harlem and Hudson Rivers between the island of Manhattan and the Bronx. Spuyten Duyvil is most likely a loose derivation of a seventeenth century Dutch phrase "spuit den duyvil" which translates to "in spite of the Devil," a reference to the roughness of the nearby waters caused by double tides. This area, first explored in 1609 by Henry Hudson, developed into a small community by the second half of the nineteenth century with the completion of the Hudson River Railroad. In 1904, the first subway to connect Manhattan and the Bronx was completed and the Third Avenue elevated line was expanded further northward thus offering affordable transportation from the congested neighborhoods of Manhattan to underdeveloped areas in the Bronx. Additionally, in 1895 the first section of the Harlem River Ship Canal, a waterway connecting the Hudson and Harlem rivers, was finished enabling ships for the first time to travel completely around Manhattan. The Bronx as a result experienced rapid growth with the development of commercial and residential areas in the beginning decades of the twentieth century.
Lawson's Spuyten Duyvil Creek poignantly documents the changing landscape of this corner of New York, revealing a striking contrast between rural country side, the burgeoning community of Spuyten Duyvil and the increase of shipping commerce along the once quiet Harlem River. Characteristic of Lawson's compositional technique, the present work is divided into three specific and unique zones. Looking from Manhattan over the creek to the Bronx, Lawson situates the viewer within a landscape that resembles farmland with rustic stonewalls and barn-like structures. Looking across Spuyten Duyvil Creek and Harlem River there emerges a dense patchwork of buildings comprised of factories, warehouses and various commercial buildings, all belching columns of smoke. Dividing the two landscapes is the placid river in which a commercial boat adds to the billows of smoke.
Underscoring the visual impact of Spuyten Duyvil Creek is Lawson's unique handling of pigment, color and light that are the hallmarks of his finest works. Henry and Sidney Berry-Hill observed: "Lawson's concern was with color and texture, not with 'isms.' His layer upon layer of glistening oil paint does not disguise any precise compositional devices; he painted landscape for landscape's sake, as though every canvas was a spontaneous study of color-in-landscape and texture-in-landscape. His color, moulded into a rich mass on his palette, is vivid, applied with knife, brush and even thumb. It was as though he was virtually sculpting his painting with color on color, over and over again. His method of scraping and manipulating his paint is personal, adapted to accord with his theme. Some summer surfaces actually sing with color and glow with luminous iridescence, comparable with that of brilliant enamel." (Ernest Lawson, American Impressionist, Leigh-on-Sea, England, 1968, p. 31) The present work was included in a sale entitled A Choice Little Collection in 1929. A critic of the sale ingled out Spuyten Duyvil Creek as "one of the most vigorously colorful" in a "particularly interesting assortment of small choice canvases by Americans of the period of Twachtman, Homer and Weir." (New York Herald Tribune, January 29, 1929) Incorporating saturating light and jewel-like reds, blues greens and whites coupled with a deliberate and heavy handed application of paint, Lawson in Spuyten Duyvil Creek creates an atmosphere that is at once tranquil and agitated. His canvas poignantly reflects the rapid transformation of a landscape at the crossroads of a growing city.
Spuyten Duyvil Creek in its style and subject matter succinctly illustrates the diametric traits that make Lawson one to the most revered members of The Eight. The present work documents the encroachment of modern life on the undeveloped countryside, yet harmoniously melds the opposing worlds through the veiling effects of light, color and application of pigment.