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Howard Thain's Eye: Discovering New York in the 1920s

November 11, 2011 - August 19, 2012

Howard Thain moved to New York in 1919, and he described how during the next decade he spent every moment he could in the streets recording the city and its people “who to my provincial eye seemed incredibly interesting and exotic.” His brief but prolific painting career perfectly coincided with New York’s tumultuous and booming period before the Great Depression. Thain’s contemplative paintings reveal him as a thoughtful observer of the city, writ both large and small.

Howard Thain (1891-1951), Park Avenue at 42nd Street, N.Y.C., 1927. Oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Howard Thain, 1970.40

A disciple of American realism, Thain’s work carried on the tradition of the Ashcan School with its subjects from everyday city life, while anticipating the urban manifestation of the American Scene movement of the 1930s. His paintings often convey the stillness, anonymity, and architectonic solidity of Edward Hopper’s urban views of the period. However, Thain ranged over a greater variety of moods and subjects. He recorded the city’s gleaming architecture, its transportation hubs, its gathering places, and their inhabitants. His work ranges from subtle irony in his views of affluent New Yorkers in opulent settings, to carefree humor as he sketched city kids entertaining each other with backyard vaudevillian antics.

The New-York Historical Society holds a large group of Thain’s paintings, and this selection is vividly brought to life with ephemera from New York in the 1920s, such as menus and sheet music, along with prominent writers’ reflections on the city during a period of cultural and social change.

Creative: Tronvig Group