Georgia O’Keefe, a Light, the Moon and a Steeple

Georgia O'Keeffe's 'New York Street with Moon.' (1925) Oil on canvas. 122 x 77 cm. Carmen Thyssen Collection, Inv. no. (CTB.1981.76), Room J, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza Madrid.Georgia O’Keefe painted “New York Street with Moon” on 47th Street in Manhattan.

That’s been what art critics, scholars and reporters have been saying for decades.

Except for one, in an article in Sky and Telescope’s most recent issue.

Astrophysicist and forensic astronomer at the Texas State University Donald W. Olson says that he got together with some colleagues and found evidence that Georgia O’Keefe’s painted “New York City with Moon” at the corner of Vanderbilt and 48th Street East.1

And that the scene is what she saw on the night of January 9th, 1925. After having been filtered through the artist’s imagination and her Precisionist style.

So how come folks in the art field say the painting shows a scene on 47th Street?

For one thing, that’s what Georgia O’Keefe wrote in 1976, a half-century later:

“…I began talking about trying to paint New York. Of course, I was told that it was an impossible idea — even the men hadn’t done too well with it. From my teens on I had been told that I had crazy notions so I was accustomed to disagreement and went on with my idea of painting New York.

My first painting was a night scene of 47th Street, ‘New York with Moon.’ There was a street light in the upper foreground at about the Chatham Hotel … five of us [five painters, along with two photographers] had a group show on the top floor of the Anderson Galleries. My large flowers were shown for the first time. At the end of the hall just outside the door of the elevator to go toward the show. But the ‘New York’ wasn’t hung — much to my disappointment.

“The next year Stieglitz had a small corner room at the Anderson Galleries. There were three large windows. As you entered you saw my first ‘New York’ between two windows … My large ‘New York’ was sold the first afternoon. No one ever objected to my painting New York after that.”
(“Georgia O’Keeffe,” Georgia O’Keeffe, 1976: text accompanying catalogues 17 and 18. Via Sky and Telescope (January 2023 issue) [emphasis mine])

There’s a lot going on there, but today I’ll stick mostly to the ‘Case of the New York Moon’s Street’ mystery.

‘You Can’t Paint New York City?!’

Map segment from Bromley's 'Land Book of the Borough of Manhattan' for 1927. Hotel Chatham and Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas highlighted. From Sky And Telescope (January 2023 issue)
Hotel Chatham and Colegiate Church of St. Nicholas on East 48th, New York City. (1927)

Vintage postcard showing Hotel Chatham and Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas and a Bishop's Crook lamppost at the hotel's street corner. From Sky And Telescope (January 2023 issue)O’Keeffe’s painting isn’t photorealistic.

But her version of the Precisionism style gave us several identifiable objects: a Bishop’s Crook lamppost, the moon, clouds and a church steeple.

The pattern and opacity of the clouds suggests that they’re the altocumulus variety: according to Olson, at least, and I think he’s right.

The moon is riding high in the sky, which it would in the winter.

We know that O’Keeffe painted “New York Street with Moon” before Alfred Stieglitz’s Seven Americans exhibition

That exhibition had opened at Manhattan’s Anderson Galleries on March 9, 1925; and hadn’t included “New York Street….”

Normally, a painting’s absence from an exhibition wouldn’t be proof that it existed. But in this case, I gather that O’Keeffe left us written records of her frustration at its absence.

And that she’d wanted “New York Street…” included, but her husband didn’t.

Because at the time, everybody knew that nobody could paint New York City. Anyway, men artists had said nobody could paint New York City and if they couldn’t, a woman artist certainly couldn’t.

I know.

But let’s remember: this was 1925. “Roaring Twenties” or not, Western culture in general and American culture in particular were on very steep learning curves.2

‘She’s smart as a man’ was still supposed to be a compliment in my youth, and that’s another topic.

The good news, as I see it, was that O’Keeffe could not only get that scene painted; but convince the guys that showing it was okay. And only a year after her husband balked.

Now, back to the ‘Case of the New York Street and Moon’ mystery.

A Street Corner That’s Not There Any More

Google Street View's look at Manhattan's East 48th Street, near where the corner of 48th and Vanderbilt used to be. (November 24, 2022) via Google Street View, used w/o permission.
New York City’s East 48th, near where Vanderbilt Avenue used to be. (November 2022)

O’Keeffe said her painting showed “…a street light in the upper foreground at about the Chatham Hotel.” And she’d included enough detail to show it was one of New York City’s Bishop’s Crook designs, intended for narrow streets.

She’d also said, a half-century after creating “New York Street With Moon,” that she’d been on 47th street.

Just one problem with that. The Hotel Chatham was on East 48th Street, not East 47th. And there wasn’t a church with a steeple like the one she’d painted down the street from the Chatham.

There had, however, been one on East 48th: the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas.

It’s not there any more, and neither is the 48th Street Hotel Chatham.

Hotel Chathams, on the other hand, seem to be alive and well and pretty much everywhere folks want to spend money.

The St. Nicholas church had been built between 1869 and 1872, and wasn’t torn down until 1949. The church had been known for “its towering 265-foot-high steeple.”3

Remembering Details, Some Details

An image from Brian H. Gill's brain scans in 2018.A photo of the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas is a pretty good match for one O’Keeffe’s painted: the spire, that is.

Olson put a great deal more detail into his Sky and Telescope article. Including weather reports for late 1924 and early 1925: which, combined with information from published O’Keeffe correspondence, narrows the painting’s inspiration down to the night of one full moon.

According to Olson, that is. I expect that art experts, scholars and fans will either look at the data he’s presented: or not.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping that the magazine will add his “The Night Skies of Georgia O’Keeffe” to their website: but the article’s in their current issue, and I’m drifting off-topic again.

Bottom line? I think Georgia O’Keeffe remembered the building and street light that had been front and center when she began painting “New York City with Moon.” And that at the time she wasn’t obsessing over street numbers.

That she got the street number almost right — off by only one integer — a half-century later: that’s doing pretty well.

Bear in mind that I’m an artist, too; albeit an amateur, unless you count doing promotional graphic design.

And remembering whether the Foshay Tower was at the corner of Marquette and 9th or Marquette and 10th4 when I took a photo of it in 1971? I’d be lucky to remember the Marquette Avenue part.

Finally, finally about the painting that is, my oldest daughter’s observation suggests that “New York City with Moon” made a lasting impact on our culture. Pop culture, at any rate:

“Looks a lot like the art style for Batman: The Animated Series’s opening credits.”
(N. M. Gill, during chat on Discord. (November 24, 2022))

Bishop’s Crook Street Lights? Bishops Crook Street Lights?
Google Street View's look at Manhattan's East 48th Street, near where the corner of 48th and Vanderbilt used to be. (November 24, 2022) via Google Street View, used w/o permission.
A Bishop’s Crook street light in New York City.

I virtually visited East 48th Street and Vanderbilt Avenue in New York City this week, using Google Maps.

Seems that Vanderbilt Avenue doesn’t cross East 48th any more. I suppose the folks in charge decided that getting more room for buildings was more important that keeping that particular section of street open.

But Bishop’s Crook street lights are back in New York City:

The Bishops Crook was the first of a number of decorative street lights to be introduced as early as 1900 on narrow city streets. Bracket versions of the Bishops Crook were also attached to the facades of buildings. The reproduction of the Bishops Crook was introduced in 1980 at Madison Avenue and 50th Street outside the Helmsley Palace Hotel (now the New York Palace Hotel).
(Bishops Crook Pole, New York City Street Design Manual)

Bishop’s Crook street lights, the name comes from their resemblance to a Bishop’s crosier, aren’t unique to New York City.

I found mentions of their use in University of Georgia and University of Vermont archives. And learned that New York City’s new ones have LEDs.5

There’s probably more Bishop’s Crook street light lore out there. Maybe you can find it.

I don’t know why Olson used the possessive form, Bishop’s Crook; and New York City’s Street Design Manual uses the plural, Bishops Crook. Or, for that matter, whether or not that’s something worth the time it’d take to get an answer.

Brian H. Gill. (2021)I’ve been distracted this week, so instead of wandering off into the stories of 20th century American art, why I don’t miss the ‘good old days,’ and discussions of street lighting from assorted viewpoints — I’ll admit to myself that I’ve run out of time.

And, of course, add the usual links to more stuff; starting with what I’ve written.

And, not-so-usually, show a selection of headings in my posts. That way, you can guess what they’ll be about.

That’s the idea, at any rate:

1 An astronomer, an artist, a painting and a magazine:

2 Clouds and an American era:

3 Remembering New York City:

  • “The Night Skies of Georgia O’Keeffe”
    Donald W. Olson, Sky and Telescope (January 2023 issue)
  • (“Manhattan Churches”
    Richard Panchyk (2016) (quoted in Olson’s “The Night Skies of Georgia O’Keeffe,” Sky and Telescope (January 2023 issue))

4 Details, details:

5 Street lights, mostly:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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