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Art Focus: Artists of the Fourteenth Street School by Erik Brockett
by Erik Brockett

Fig. 1: Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876-1952),
Leaving the Bank, 1924.
Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches.
Signed at upper center.
Courtesy of Brock & Co., Carlisle, Mass.

The term "Fourteenth Street School," originating in the early 1950s, refers to a group of New York painters who, during the 1920s and '30s, continued the tradition established by the Ashcan School a generation earlier of realistically portraying everyday life. The best remembered members of the group, who worked in the vicinity of Fourteenth Street and Union Square, are Kenneth Hayes Miller, Reginald Marsh, Raphael Soyer, and Isabel Bishop; also associated were Moses Soyer and Edward Laning

The location of their studios provided them with a lively spectacle. Vast numbers of residents of Manhattan and beyond frequented the "poor man's Fifth Avenue" to patronize affordable clothing stores, movie theaters, and restaurants, or to work in the area's banks and offices. Its proximity to the impoverished Bowery neighborhood also resulted in the presence of vagrants who passed time in Union Square's park. Adding to the character of the neighborhood was the fact that it was a symbolic center of free speech, where demonstrations were often held and where several radical groups and publications were headquartered. The artists of the Fourteenth Street School selected their subjects from this daily panoply, producing examples of urban American scene painting that carried messages of celebration, satire, and social concern.

Fig. 2: Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876-1952),
Portrait of a Woman Reading a Letter, 1927.
Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches.
Signed and dated on the
letter: Hayes Miller / 1927.
Courtesy of Childs Gallery, Boston.

Serving as the nucleus of the school was Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876-1952), who, through his teaching efforts at New York's Chase School of Art (1900-1911) and the Art Students League (1912-1936), ranks among the most influential instructors of the early twentieth century. Miller was also involved with the Whitney Studio Club, its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, having named Miller and a group of his League students charter members. The club provided a place for artists to socialize and sponsored exhibitions that helped publicize the work of members of the Fourteenth Street School.1 More than a few of Miller's students enjoyed distinguished careers, including Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and George Bellows (1882-1925).

Born in Oneida, New York, Miller studied at the Art Students League with Henry Siddons Mowbray (1858-1928) and Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) and at the New York School of Art with William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). Early in his career he was known for romantic figural works that demonstrate the influence of Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847 -1917). More successful, however, were his paintings dating from after 1923, when he moved to a studio at 6 East Fourteenth Street and began to focus on the creation of astutely perceived realistic depictions of female subjects who frequented the area. Miller's espousal of Renaissance artistic theories manifested itself in his use of glazes and under painting that built up the surfaces of his balanced compositions of dense, sculptural human forms. Shown engaged in shopping and other daily activities (Figs. 1, 2, and 3), his careful renderings of neatly dressed members of the middle class suggest prosperity and harmony and avoid challenging issues of financial disparity. His technique and subject matter imbue his work with a sense of contemporary classicism, lending order and control to what was one of the most chaotic districts in the country.

Fig. 3: Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876-1952),
Casual Meeting, 1928.
Oil on canvas, 20-1/4 x 24-1/4 inches.
Signed and dated: Hayes Miller/ '28.
Courtesy of Bernard Goldberg
Fine Arts, LLC, New York.

Among those who moved into Miller's neighborhood and used it as a source of inspiration was Edward Laning (1906-1981), who, beginning in the late 1920s, maintained a studio, first at 145 West Fourteenth Street and later, at 12 East Seventeenth Street. Lanning was born in Petersburg, Illinois, and attended the Art Institute of Chicago (1924) and the University of Chicago (1925-1927) before coming to the Art Students League, where, between 1927 and 1930, he studied with Miller, Max Weber (1881-1961), Boardman Robinson (1876-1952), John Sloan (1871-1951), and Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). Although he initially rejected Miller's conservative instruction while studying the work of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) in Europe in 1929, he realized its value, and following his return to New York, studied with Miller for several years. Lanning later recalled Miller's influence, stating "He had a remarkable faculty for making art the thing one lived for  nothing else in the world.... My identification with him was almost complete for a time. I guess I turned him into my father."2 From approximately 1929 to 1933, his style closely related to that of his mentor's. His presentation of Union Square area denizens included decriptions of daily life under less than ideal circumstances such as facing inclement weather or suffering the effects of too much alcohol, and, compared with his Miller's work, have a dramatic narrative (Figs. 4 and 5). Through Miller, Lanning became friendly with Reginald Marsh and Isabel Bishop. During the late '20s and early '30s their social activities included attending Miller's Wednesday afternoon teas, bowling together, and traveling abroad to study the Old Masters.

LEFT: Fig. 4: Edward Laning (1906-1981), Breezy Day on the Avenue, ca. 1930. Oil on canvas, 8-3/4 x 6-1/2 inches. Signed and dated lower right: Laning_'30. Collection of John P. Axelrod. RIGHT: Fig. 5: Edward Laning (1906-1981), Companions, ca. 1930-1931. Oil on canvas, 11-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches. Signed lower right: Edward Laning. Collection of John P. Axelrod.

Fig. 6: Isabel Bishop (1902-1988),
Female Head, ca. 1935.
Oil on wood panel, 12-1/8 x 10 inches.
Signed upper right: Isabel Bishop.
Private collection.

Isabel Bishop (1902-1988) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but spent her early childhood in Detroit, Michigan, where she studied life drawing at the Wicker Art School. At the age of sixteen she arrived in New York to persue a career in illustration and enrolled at the New York School of Applied Design for Women. In 1920, following an increase in aspiration, she began classes at the Art Students League, where her instructors included Weber, Robert Henri (1865-1929), Frank Vincent DuMond (1865-1951), Guy Pene du Bois (1884-1958), and, most importantly, Miller, with whom she studied until 1931. Although Weber treated her harshly and she felt intimidated by Henri, in Miller she found a mentor who, in her words, was "intellectually stimulating, not stultifying, a fascinating person who presented all sorts of new possibilities, new points of view."3 Her friendship with Reginald Marsh, who periodically attended classes at the Art Students League at the same time, resulted in her exposure to working-class life. In 1926, she moved to 9 West Fourteenth Street, a block away from Miller, and maintained a studio in the area until 1982, from where she perceptively captured the daily activities in Union Square. The influence of Miller's stress on draftsmanship, composition, and choice of subject is clear in Bishop's work, but as she matured as an artist she developed her own voice, presenting her subjects free from gloss or sentiment. Her drawings, etchings, and paintings of working-class women in lower Manhattan demonstrate great sensitivity to individual personalities and reflect her interest in the baroque painters of the seventeenth century. In addition to nudes and multiple figure compositions showing interactions on the street, she painted close-ups of emotive female faces (Fig. 6). Using layers of pigment over a typically gray ground, the best of her work shimmers and appears spatially unlimited.

LEFT: Fig. 7: Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Mr. Broe on the Manhattan Bridge, 1936. Tempera on board mounted to canvas, 24 x 18 inches. Courtesy of Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, LLC, New York. RIGHT: Fig. 8: Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Strokey's Bar on the Bowery, 1946. Chinese ink and watercolor on paper, 40-1/4 x 27 inches. Signed and dated at lower right: Reginald Marsh 46. Courtesy of Franklin Riehlman Fine Art, New York.

Reginald Marsh (1898-1954) was born in Paris to expatriate artist parents who returned to the United States around 1900, where the family settled in Nutley, New Jersey. In 1916, he entered Yale University, where he majored in art and drew illustrations for the Yale Record, a campus magazine. Following graduation, he arrived in New York and soon established himself as a successful freelance illustrator, working for well-circulated publications such as the New York Daily News, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Esquire. In 1921, he began attending classes at the Art Students League, where he studied with Sloan, George Luks (1867-1933), and Miller, with whom he developed a lifelong relationship. Marsh described Miller's impacted of his career, "I can't exactly say how I came to paint New York, except that determining and articulate encouragement came from my new friend and teacher, Kenneth Hayes Miller, whose scholarly and original mind is the most valuable influence we have."4 After visiting Europe early in 1926 his interest in the Old Masters increased, as did his commitment to be a painter rather than an illustrator. In 1928, Marsh began working at 21 East Fourteenth Street, close to Miller, Lanning, and Bishop, and with easy access to Union Square and the Bowery. A careful, though detached, observer, Marsh excelled at representing crowds of New York denizens. His lively scenes include both the unemployed and the working class candidly and unemotionally portrayed going about their daily activities (Figs. 7 and 8), as are those in better circumstances, who are shown shopping or enjoying burlesque shows and movie houses.

Fig. 9: Raphael Soyer (1889-1987),
Men at the Mission, 1935.
Oil on canvas, 11 x 17 inches.
Courtesy of Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, LLC

Although neither Raphael Soyer (1889-1987), nor his twin brother, Moses (1899-1974), studied with Miller, they were both significant painters of realistic New York genre scenes who carried the Ashcan tradition into the 1930s. Born in Borisoglebsk, Russia, they grew up in an academic atmosphere created by their father, a Hebrew scholar. In 1912, the family came to the United States and eventually settled in the Bronx. They both attended classes at Cooper Union and in 1918 began studying at the National Academy of Design. Moses, however, soon transferred to the Educational Alliance Art School, a choice that allowed the brothers more independence in their development. Here, Moses studied from 1919 until 1924, when he became an instructor at the school. Shortly after, he was awarded a scholarship that allowed him to travel in Europe. Through the influence of Henri, whom he met at the Ferrer Art School in Spanish Harlem, Moses began to take an interest in representations of the downtrodden. Influenced by his brother, Raphael questioned the conservative values of the Academy and by 1923 was taking classes at the Art Students League with du Bois. After Raphael met Alexander Brook (1898-1980), a former Miller student, who introduced him to members of the Whitney Studio Club, he began exhibiting at the Whitney Studio Galleries.5 Raphael's preference for quotidian individuals in a state of contemplation, often victims of the Depression, was informed by his appreciation of French nineteenth-century masters (Fig. 9). These factors, combined with his presence on Fourteenth Street in early 1930s, secure his place of a member of the school.


Prior to joining the staff of Antiques & Fine Art Magazine, Erik Brockett spent over a decade researching and selling fine art through commercial galleries and at auction.


1. Ellen Wiley Todd, The "New Woman" Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 72.
2. Ellen Wiley Todd, The "New Woman" Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 72.
3. Helen Yglesias, Isabel Bishop (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1988), 11.
4. Peyton Boswell Jr., Modern American Painting (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1940), 142.
5. Todd, The "New Woman" Revised, 66-67


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