Nevinson first visited New York in 1919, at the invitation of Frederick Keppel & Co, a gallery and print publisher who mounted a successful exhibition of Nevinson’s prints of the First World War. The exhibition, which was received with great acclaim, opened towards the end of April 1919, and Nevinson spent a month in the city, making numerous sketches and studies. Having been surrounded by the devastation of the First World War for four years, Nevinson found fresh inspiration in New York, its skyscrapers and industry. In an interview with the New York Times, he described what he and other artists felt: ‘Having lived among scrap heaps, having seen miles of destruction day after day, month after month, year after year, they are longing for a complete change. We artists are sick of destruction in Art. We want construction.’ (Nevinson quoted in Michael Walsh, C.R.W. Nevinson; The Cult of Violence, Yale University, New Haven, 2002, pp.191-2).
The city captured his imagination, and he returned again in 1920, the result of these trips being around fifty paintings and twelve prints, testament to the artistic impetus these visits engendered. Writing for The Daily Chronicle in 1929, Nevinson praised the city for its vertiginous skyline and progressive architecture: ‘New York, being the Venice of this epoch, has triumphed, thanks to its engineers and architects…the American has pegged his city to the sky. No sight can be more exhilarating and beautiful than this triumph of man’ (C.R.W. Nevinson, ‘The Most Beautiful City: Which is it? London? Paris? New York?’ quoted in Richard Ingleby et al., C.R.W. Nevinson, The Twentieth Century, Merrell Holberton Publishers Ltd in association with the Imperial War Museum, London, 1999, p.47).
Looking Down on Downtown captures the verve and excitement that Nevinson felt during those trips to New York. The view is that from the Railroad Club, which he visited during his first trip to the city, and Nevinson later created a print of the same view (Looking Down on Downtown, 1921). Nevinson presents only a snapshot of this scene, the composition cropped to show the sheer scale of the buildings, which continue outwith the edges of the canvas. The angular buildings rise with an undeniable dynamism, filled with row upon row of windows, and inhabited by hundreds of unseen people. Far below, the railway tracks wind their way through the city, disappearing out of sight. Painted in a warm palette, the scene is illuminated by bright sunlight, imbuing the scene with a sense of purpose and anticipation, the buildings casting sharp, diagonal shadows. An intriguing pendant to the present work can be found in New York – An Abstraction (later retitled The Soul of the Soulless City, 1920, Tate, London), which takes an opposing viewpoint to the present work, placing the viewer in the very heart of the city, gazing up at a succession of towering buildings, with clouds of smoke and steam drifting skywards. Although Nevinson’s enchantment with the city was not to last, Looking Down on Downtown captures the enthusiasm for this new world, one of dynamism, construction and progress.
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