Artistic License

The picture above – somewhat melancholy, but striking – is a photograph of a painting titled “Fifth Avenue at twilight” by Birge Harrison. According to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, which owns the painting, it is from around 1910. The actual painting is in color.

The location is one I’m familiar with, but even if I were not, the large open space gives it away: we’re looking south down the avenue from the Grand Army Plaza. The church spire on the right is is the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church at 55th Street, with the 1905 skyscraper Gotham Hotel (now the Peninsula) behind it.

There’s one curiosity, which I will, at least for the moment, categorize as artistic license, and that’s the building in front of the church, on the south side of the plaza. In 1910 that would have been the Cornelius Vanderbilt II House, which was on that site from 1883 to 1926. Here’s a photo I’ve used before, showing a similar view and the mansion:

Here’s the curiosity: why doesn’t the Vanderbilt mansion look right in the painting? The actual building had a very-steeply-pitched hip roof on the left, facing Fifth Avenue, then a stretch of connecting roof, and the the less-steep center pavilion roof. The painting shows two closely-spaced equally-pitched roofs, at a lower slope than the actual east-most roof. The windows are also in the wrong pattern.

The painting has no visual clues to its date, and Harrison died in 1929, so it’s at least theoretically possible this was painted later and it doesn’t show the mansion. The successor building, the Bergdorf Goodman store, is still on the site, but it doesn’t look anything like the painting either, with a flat-top mansard roof on the east, facing the avenue, and too many floors to be the building in the painting.

It appears that Harrison deliberately changed the appearance of the building. Anything beyond that is pure speculation: was he trying to obfuscate the location? To avoid angering a wealthy and powerful family? To spare a family of having their home shown? Something else? It certainly wasn’t for lack of talent to show it properly: the Gotham Hotel and the church look almost exactly like the photo. This falls into the category of things that not only will I never know, there’s no way I could find out if I tried.

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