Thomas Nast’s ‘Central Park in Winter’

Two scenes, showing skating and sleighing in Central Park. The top panel includes drawings of James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley
For the January 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast drew a many-paneled illustration of Central Park in winter.  Like many of his works, this one featured a large central drawing, surrounded by smaller vignettes in round and elliptical frames.  The main drawing shows New Yorkers ice-skating on Central Park’s Pond.  (The Park was then only a few years old.)  Below that is a rather wild sleighing scene, in which genteel New Yorkers ride through a desolate terrain, as urchins throw snowballs or rocks at them.

The opening of Central Park coincided with ice-skating’s growing popularity, which took hold in earnest in the 1850s.  The Park was most heavily visited in winter, when its pond became crowded with thousands of skaters, whose activities Nast captures here in wonderful detail.  (Note the woman in the skating chair.)

Perhaps inevitably, Nast’s wonderland contains some politics, too.  Two months earlier, President Lincoln had been reelected as an inconclusive Civil War dragged on, inflicting terrible casualties.  New York, being a commercial center, had always viewed the war with ambivalence.  The conflict was contrary to the city’s interests, disrupting a lucrative trade with the South on which New York’s economy relied.  While many New Yorkers were ardent Unionists and Republicans, the city also had a large Democratic constituency, including a politically active immigrant population, which resented the war, the federal government, and the fuss about slaves.  Many, wishing a return to peace, had lately voted for Lincoln’s challenger, Democrat George McClellan.

Anger over the federal government’s war policies had boiled into violence the previous July.  New York became the scene of bloody draft riots, in which rioters lynched at least 11 blacks and 120 people were killed in street fighting between protesters and the police.  Poor whites were inflamed against a draft bill that Congress had recently passed: while ostensibly requiring all fit men to serve in the Union military, it contained a loophole that wealthier Northerners would use to evade the draft: arranging for a replacement by paying a bounty.

In the foreground of his skating scene, Nast (who ardently supported Lincoln and the war) highlights several figures, including a military man at the far left wearing a kepi—a reminder of high-minded Northerners voluntarily leading the Union effort as officers.  At right are two prominent New York newspaper editors, James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley, who have run into trouble on proverbially thin ice.  Greeley is teetering, while Bennett has fallen, both near a hole signifying treachery.  Bennett had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln and proponent of McClellan, whereas Greeley, while fitfully supportive of the war, had recently embarrassed the Lincoln administration by engaging in bogus ‘peace negotiations’ with some Confederate representatives who turned out to be fakes.

Both editors, though overwhelmingly influential, earned Nast’s scorn because they were feckless peace-mongers.  To have ended the Civil War through a settlement at that juncture would have rendered the suffering of the soldiers in vain.

Their presence heightens the allegorical meaning of the left side of the tableau, where three figures guard the safety of the family and society.  Besides the Union officer, who holds a small boy in his arms, Nast’s own editor Fletcher Harper (with mutton-chop whiskers) stands over a young girl protectively, while a third man (unidentified, but probably a prominent editor, too) deferentially greets a woman standing at the edge of the ice.  Nast depicts these figures as both benevolent and patriotic.  Harper gave Nast a venue for his pro-Union and radically egalitarian views.

So what at first glance passes for an innocuous pleasure scene is a comment on specific editors, and a paean to the value of virtuous editors in a conflict-ridden time.

Image from this source.

The Neapolitan Crèche

The Neopolitan Creche at the Art Institute
There is something particularly wonderful about gazing on the Nativity as presented in the Art Institute’s Neapolitan Crèche.  Housed in a small, darkened gallery on the museum’s second floor, the crèche is displayed in a way that heightens its inherent magic and mystery.  The effect owes something to the dramatic glass case that contains the nativity scene and the splendid cornice above it: their beaming draws viewers near to inspect the fantastic spectacle framed within their proscenium.  Before this gigantic dollhouse of a crèche, adults stand and stare as if they were kids.

Detail showing the variety of mortal and heavenly beings the creche displays.
The urge to represent Jesus’s birth in a ‘living way,’ whether through tableaux vivants, Christmas pageants, or three-dimensional crèches has spanned more than a millennium.  While two-dimensional depictions of the nativity date from within several centuries of Jesus’s death, the history of the crèche is associated with the work of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Legend has it that, around 1223, he originated the custom of re-enacting the story of Jesus’s birth using human actors along with live oxen and ass.  This tradition of pageantry grew and became intertwined with the custom of creating of lasting sculptural representations of the Holy Family’s arrival in Bethlehem and the unlikely birth of Jesus in a stable, an event whose significance was apprehended, according to Gospel, only by angels, shepherds, and three wise men.

By the 18th century, when most of the Art Institute’s crèche was made, the artists of Naples had pushed the art form of crèche-making to unprecedented heights.  Patrons commissioned the artists to make crèches for palaces and cathedrals, encouraging the growth of a genre that became ever more elaborate and expansive.  The Art Institute’s crèche includes some 250 figures—an amazing array of mortal and heavenly beings, all shaped, painted, and outfitted in lifelike detail.

Detail, Neapolitan creche (early 18th century)Significantly, the crèche integrates the transformative moment of Jesus’s birth with the ongoing drama of human society.  Naples was cosmopolitan, and the crèche includes people of many sorts and nationalities.  As a host of angels and cherubs flutters down out of a hand-painted sky, and as Mary and Joseph beam on their newborn son, the surrounding human family parties on.  The crèche’s conflation of past and present, its melding of spiritual joy with the worldly, is very much in keeping with the transcendent possibilities told of in Christmas’s original, earthy story.

The crèche is a relatively new acquisition of the Art Institute.
It can be seen in Gallery 209 through January 8, 2017.
Click here for more information.

Maidens Speed-Skate, 1809

Women racing on ice skates in 1809.
‘At a women’s skating race in Leeuwarden [the Netherlands] in 1809, the crowd watched sixty-four unmarried women vie for a gold cap-brooch. The winner was Houkje Gerrits Bouma. For greater ease, many had thrown off their cloaks. Baur painted the finalists with bare arms, a jettisoned cloak on the ice. It left little to men’s imagination and caused an outcry; therefore it was the last women’s race for many years.’

 

Image: Nicolaas Baur (Dutch, 1767-1820)
‘Women’s Skating Competition on the Stadsgracht in Leeuwarden, 21 January 1809’
Rijks Museum via Wikimedia Commons

This is the ninth in an occasional series of posts on ice-skating.
Click here to go to the first post.