COLIN CAMPBELL COOPER (1856–1937)
Waldorf Astoria, New York, about 1908
Oil on board, 14 x 10 3/4 in.
Signed and inscribed (at lower right): Colin Campbell Cooper
EX COLL.: the artist; to his estate, 1937–1943; to Walter Baum [?]; private collection, until the present
In Waldorf Astoria, New York, Cooper looks south down the west side of Fifth Avenue toward the Waldorf Astoria Hotel between 33rd and 34th Streets. Cooper had painted the hotel in 1906 on a larger canvas, looking north (Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C., The New-York Historical Society). William Gerdts, discussing that picture in Impressionist New York (1994: pp. 50, 51 colorplate 34), quotes Harper's New Monthly Magazine of February 1909, which took note of the "newer Fifth Avenue, which has risen in marble and Indiana limestone from the brownstone and brick of a former age, the Augustan Fifth Avenue which has replaced that old Lincolnian Fifth Avenue." The "Lincolnian Fifth Avenue," as the term suggests, was short-lived. An imposing succession of private homes and private clubs for the richest New Yorkers, which lined Fifth Avenue south of the Croton Reservoir at 40th Street, it was a post-Civil War phenomenon that gave way at dizzying speed, from 1890 to 1910, to a bustling thoroughfare of elegant commerce fed by the new Pennsylvania Station under construction only a few blocks to the west, and the new Grand Central Station to the north and east. Gerdts describes the expansive spirit that accompanied this burst of construction in New York from 1880 to 1910, what critic John Van Dyke called the "New New York," (Gerdts, p. 7) and names Colin Campbell Cooper as the artist who best portrayed it: "This new urban spirit is nowhere better seen than in the New York canvases by Colin Campbell Cooper" (p. 50).
Indeed, the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street was as emblematic a place as any to catch the spirit of the twentieth century. A contemporary viewer of Cooper's 1908 picture would have "seen" not just imposing new architecture, but an associated trove of gossipy, scandalous, and sensational true stories populated by the social, artistic, and financial elite of New York City. The Waldorf Astoria Hotel (since 1929, the site of the Empire State Building) dominates the picture. The hotel was in reality two linked buildings, both built by architect Henry Janeway Hardenburgh in German Renaissance style, which told a well-known story of high-society family feuds. Until 1893, the brownstone mansions of the Astor brothers had shared the blockfront. In 1893, William Waldorf Astor retaliated against his aunt, Mrs. William B. (Caroline Schermerhorn) Astor, whose ballroom capacity had defined the limits of New York Society—the "400"—angry at her refusal to cede the leadership of New York Society to his own wife. He demolished his family residence at the southern end of the block, expatriated to England, and erected the thirteen-story Waldorf Hotel, whose Teutonic bulk cast a shadow on his proud aunt's home, with its legendary ballroom and art gallery now reduced to Lilliputian scale. A year later Mrs. William B. Astor moved into her new house at 65th Street and Fifth Avenue. In 1897, her son, John Jacob Astor, built his seventeen-story hotel, which he named the Astoria in honor of their mutual entrepreneurial ancestor, the original John Jacob Astor. The buildings were joined into one grand hotel, and the bickering branches of the family were uneasily reunited in successful commerce.
After 1906, guests at the spectacular hotel could shop at Benjamin Altman's tasteful new emporium erected diagonally across Fifth Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets. The three-story white colonnaded building on the northwest corner of 34th Street in Cooper's picture had its own equally compelling, but very different story. This imposing Neo-Classical structure, on the site of the gaudy Second Empire-style A. T. Stewart mansion, was built in 1903 by the famous architect and man-about-town, Stanford White, for his friend and client, Charles T. Barney, the president of the Knickerbocker Trust Company. White was sensationally murdered in 1906 by Harry Thaw, the millionaire husband of White's erstwhile mistress, Evelyn Nesbit. The trial and retrial dragged on through 1907 to 1908, when Thaw was finally found not guilty by reason of insanity. Meanwhile, in 1907, Barney had committed the bank's capital to a risky copper speculation that failed, taking the Knickerbocker with it. Barney killed himself soon thereafter.
Cooper's view in Waldorf Astoria, New York begins at 35th Street and extends south past the distant spire of Marble Collegiate Church, seen in misty outline at Fifth Avenue and 29th Street. The Church, built in 1854, was little more than 50 years old when Cooper painted it, but was already a nostalgic relic of a wealthy residential community that was gone forever. The picture is thickly painted. The sidewalks bustle with pedestrians bundled against the cold, who share the street with vehicular traffic. A bright, but cloudy sky suggests a blustery day, and presents a dramatic visual contrast with the dark brown hulk of the hotel.