First laid out in 1872, Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was meant to bring the splendor of the Hudson River Valley into the heart of New York City. Much of it is hillside descending precipitously to the mighty Hudson, while even steeper cliffs, the Palisades of New Jersey, rise on the far bank. In the early twentieth century the park was still a work-in-progress. In the early months of 1909, when George Bellows painted this raw and chill-inducing view, foliage remained sparse, visitors rare, pathways muddy, and the New York Central Railroad cut like a knife along the shoreline. This was one of those liminal areas—of the city but with its back turned to it, no longer natural, not quite urban—which had attracted the artist’s eye almost from the moment he arrived in New York in 1904. His early paintings of the city constitute a rough survey of its ragged edges, from the Brooklyn Bridge sheltering a lone tenement to the docks of Brooklyn, from the teeming Lower East Side to the Battery. Not long before he turned to Riverside Park, Bellows had focused his attention on the hell-mouth whose gaping maw had opened in the middle of Manhattan—the excavation for Pennsylvania Station.
It was Bellows’s genius to perceive the aesthetic interest in such unlovely urban motifs. He captured the dynamism of the explosively growing city in an art that exemplified the epic forces at play at the beginning of what would come to be called “the American century.” And yet in important aspects he was adopting strategies of French avant-garde painting of the previous forty years. The impressionists of Paris were among the first to identify the incursion of the railway as a quintessential contemporary theme. Claude Monet (1840–1926) painted the Parisian Gare Saint-Lazare over and again, locomotives filling the metal train shed with swirling steam. Georges Seurat (1859–1891), in his Bathers at Asnières of 1884 (The National Gallery, London), depicts working-class lads enjoying their day off along the Seine; in the background a train roars across a steel bridge and factory chimneys belch sulphurous fumes; the boys’ respite will be brief. When he arrived in Paris in 1886, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) sought out vantage points high in Montmartre whence to depict countryside giving way to city, charming windmills to charmless apartment blocks, rows of street lamps where the streets had not yet been laid in. That fascination with transition—not quite one thing, not yet another—is what Bellows brought to New York.
So too his persistent exploration of the city under snow; Riverside Park without it interested him little. More than thirty years earlier, during the French winter of 1874–75, famous for its heavy snowfall, Monet obsessively painted some eighteen views of the town of Argenteuil, every street buried in white. For both artists, perhaps, the challenge was technical. Snow, with its infinite responses to the play of light, is the painter’s ideal vehicle for finding the equivalence between what is depicted and how it is painted, so that paint itself takes on the quality, consistency, and obdurate physicality of snow. That, for both painters, constituted the deep formal challenge of modern painting.