As NYC cautiously enters Phase 4 of reopening, we’re wearing our masks, social distancing, and feeling especially fond of this fine city we call home. It’s too soon to say when (if?) we’ll return to some semblance of “normalcy”, but we do know New York never sleeps. Change keeps coming. So in the spirit of perpetual transformation and Gotham’s unstoppable energy, we’re taking a look back at our teeming metropolis—way back.
Painted in 1896 by Charles S. Graham and produced as a lithograph by watercolor specialists G.H. Buek & Co, The Sky Line of New York is a comely, captivating panorama that conveys the splendor of the late 19th century’s lower Manhattan skyline at sunset. It’s a decidedly warm, dreamy scene, bathed in early evening light. The setting sun radiates from the right, sending placid reflections across the East River. The artist’s precise strokes render the boats and buildings with brilliant accuracy, but they also capture the ethereality of the golden hour and the billowing puffs of steam. A busy port, a bustling city, an ever-evolving landscape—this is a living image, an exhalation from history, a picture of progress, industry, and development with an air of wonder.
To take in this view, you’d need to be standing in Brooklyn, likely somewhere near what’s now Brooklyn Bridge Park, though there’s surely an eagle-eyed NYer out there with a more accurate guess. The Brooklyn Bridge itself would have opened thirteen years earlier, the first fixed crossing over the East River and a modern (at the time) marvel—it was the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere when it was completed, and remained so for several years. It’s positively glowing in this image, offset at the right. To the left of the Brooklyn Bridge, you’ll also spot the Manhattan Life Insurance Building, Trinity Church, the American Surety Building, the American Tract Society, and the World Building.
The Sky Line of New York immortalizes the city at the height of a skyscraper boom that centered around lower Manhattan. New York City’s vertical vista climbed to new heights in the 1890s, even following 1893's global financial crisis. By 1900, there were 252 buildings in NYC above ten stories, the ten tallest of which (including several of those mentioned above) were all located south of Chambers Street. The high-rise structures that sprang up after 1890 were made possible in part by technological advances, but they were precipitated by an exponential increase in population: In 1880, the city’s population was roughly 1.2 million. By 1900, it had nearly tripled to 3.4 million. The surge sparked new construction (and investment in construction) across the city, but particularly in lower Manhattan, where companies vied for real estate in which to situate their HQs and employees.
It took a particular person to do justice to this period of metamorphosis. Though Graham had no formal training, his interest in travel and landscape led him from creating topography for the Northern Pacific Railroad, to painting theatrical scenery in New York and Chicago, to working as a staff artist for the political journal Harper’s Weekly, to freelance artwork for prominent publications like the New York Herald and Chicago Tribune. He exhibited extensively with the American Watercolor Society, but after moving to New York in 1896 he began working exclusively in oil painting.
The Sky Line of New York was one of the last watercolors Graham produced. In its scrupulous detail and scenic expanse, you can see his background in topography and backdrop on display. But in its golden tones, glassy waters, and awe-inspiring vantage point, it also seems to betray an underlying love for the Big Apple and the constant progress the city invites. There’s something hopeful in that, and hope’s a thing we’d like to take into tomorrow. How 'bout you?
With art for everyone,