“South of Union Square, the Birthplace of American Modernism” is a series that explores how the area south of Union Square shaped some of the most influential American artists of the 20th century.
At the beginning of the 20th century, American art was still struggling to be seen as legitimate among artists of the Western world. The Art Students League, an artist-founded institution that began in 1875 when many art students became dissatisfied with the lack of quality instruction in the basics of portraiture, sculpture, and composition offered by New York art schools, was an incubator for artists who would catapult American art into the global spotlight. One of the foremost teachers at the Art Students League was Kenneth Hayes Miller (March 11, 1876 – January 1, 1952). The area south of Union Square in the 20th century was one that readily attracted painters, writers, publishers, and radical social organizations many of whom were challenging accepted American social and cultural ideals. The pivotal role of Miller, the Art Students League, and the Fourteenth School artists in American art history is inextricably linked to the area south of Union Square. This is one of the many reasons that Village Preservation is advocating for landmark designation for this endangered but historic neighborhood.
Born in the Oneida community in upstate New York, one of the most unusual nineteenth-century utopian experiments (1848-1879), Miller began his art studies at Art Students League of New York with Kenyon Cox and Henry Siddons Mowbray. He also studied with William Merritt Chase at the New York School of Art. In 1911, he began his teaching career at the League. Miller’s early works have a romantic, fantastical, dream-like quality, but around 1920 he became interested in the underpainting-and-glazing techniques of the Renaissance Old Masters. He took a studio at 6 East 14th Street in 1923 and at 30 East 14th Street from 1928 until his death in 1952. During this time, Miller became well known for his depictions of the sales girls and shoppers that filled 14th Street and the Union Square neighborhood. Miller was key in the artistic development of the Fourteenth Street School of artists, namely Reginald Marsh, Paul Cadmus, Edward Laning, Minna Citron, and Isabel Bishop.
The Fourteenth Street School of artists, informally led by Miller and composed entirely of Art Students League teachers and students, redefined urban realist painting, printmaking, and sculpture. The subject matter of their work examined seemingly common occurrences in the daily life of their immediate surroundings. Fourteenth Street at this time was referred to as “The Poor Man’s Fifth Avenue.” It was a bustling center for bargain shopping and bawdy entertainment in the form of burlesque shows and movie theatres for everyday working-class New Yorkers. Building on the work of the Ashcan School artists, they continued to depict modern urban subjects in the manner of Renaissance art but replaced the Ashcan School’s painterly idealism with an incisive grit and critique of American culture. Miller’s influence was key in the development of the Fourteenth Street School and the practices and techniques of a generation of New York artists.
Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square. To help landmark 30 East 14th Street and other buildings in this area, click here. To read more history of the buildings and area south of Union Square, and our preservation efforts in the area, click here.