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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

"On the merry-go-round of life at last I've grabbed the brass ring." Walter Broe’s Improbable Journey from Bowery Bum to Darling of New York’s Art World

By James W. Ellis
©Copyright 2015. All rights reserved by the author.

It would be difficult to imagine a less likely candidate to become darling of New York’s art world than Walter Broe. He was the only child of poor Irish immigrants. His relationship with his father was “not sweet and light” and after his father abandoned the family, his mother disappeared as well. They placed Walter in a Catholic orphanage and he tormented the nuns so much that when his father returned to claim the boy, the sisters were glad to oblige. Upon reaching adulthood, Walter Broe started a prolonged, winding, and ultimately unsuccessful, search for his long-lost mother, crisscrossing the country jumping freight train boxcars and sleeping in hobo jungles.[1] When the Great Depression arrived, Broe settled in among the nameless hordes of destitute and disposed men in Lower Manhattan’s Bowery district skid row.

During the cold winter of 1933 the Bronx-raised social realist artist Raphael Soyer and his friend Katherine Schmidt were walking near the Whitney Museum of American Art, when it was still on New York City’s Eighth Avenue, the ‘Main Street of Greenwich Village.’ They stumbled upon a poor elderly fellow using sticky chewing gum attached to a twig to fish for coins that had fallen through a subway grating. Conscious of the couple scrutinizing him, the old man (Broe) explained, “many’s the pennies and nickels one finds down there.”[2] Interrupting the commendably industrious man’s toil, the artists engaged him in conversation, learning about his nomadic adventures in search of his mother and that he was now homeless and flat broke.[3] Broe’s rough existence gave him a gaunt, worn-down appearance. Hardship seemed woven into the lines of his wrinkled, bony face; he was the very embodiment of Depression-era suffering. Raphael Soyer asked Broe to come to his studio the next day for a painting session, in exchange for small remuneration, some hot food and a bed for the night, an offer Broe quickly accepted.

On particularly cold nights, Broe used panhandled or ‘fished’ coins to pay for a bed in a Bowery flophouse, where a friend named Whitey also bedded down. The night he met Soyer and Schmidt, Broe had a noticeable case of the jitters, and Whitey asked him what was wrong. Broe replied somewhat sadly that he had been offered a steady job; Whitey seemed horrified at the prospect. You see Broe had misunderstood Soyer’s offer, thinking Raphael wanted him to come and actually paint the interior of his studio, not to serve as a model. It was going to be grueling work. “Okay Walter,” Whitey decided, “go to sleep and in the morning go over and try it out, it sounds safe enough.” The next day, Broe arrived at Soyer’s Fourteenth Street studio and proclaimed, “I’m here, gimme the brush, but I’m warning you, it’s a long time since I’ve had one of them in me hand.” Soyer, whom Broe described as “a small man, serious in mien and sensitive,” calmly explained all Broe needed to do to earn twenty-five cents per hour was sit as steadily as possible, and do nothing. This was a job he could handle. Broe proved so reliable and adept at idly sitting still, Soyer contacted several artist colleagues to recommend his new model, and eventually Broe commanded fifty-cents per hour. He was on his way to becoming a prominent member of New York City’s liberated bohemian realm.

Soyer worked for President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, and Walter Broe was the central character in several of his W.P.A. prints. One entitled A Transient shows Broe seated with his elbow on a tabletop propping up his haggard head; his head-touching a self-intimacy common for stressed-out city dwellers in need of a little comforting.[4] Some psychologists assert such a supporting hand recreates a baby’s feeling of laying the infantile head against a maternal body, which would make sense for Soyer’s regressive orphan model.

Broe took Soyer to the Bowery mission house where he often stayed and they drank strong black coffee from tin cans and ate fresh bread.[5] Soyer jotted down quick, tonal studies of Broe and his friends as they consumed their frugal repast. The forthright representations were later used as the basis for a larger painting named How long since you wrote to mother? When he visited the mission Soyer noticed inspirational and religious slogans decoratively painted on the walls: “How long since you wrote to mother?”, “God is your friend” and “The Wicked are like the troubled Sea” (the last a biblical quotation from Isaiah 57:20).[6] Soyer included these legends in his painting. The title “How long since you wrote to mother?” seemingly suggests Soyer’s own parents were on his mind. The religious quotation establishes a link to Soyer’s father, Avrom Soyer, a Hebrew scholar disappointed when his children distanced themselves from his religious convictions and traditional Jewish life. In the mission house, Raphael Soyer recognized the quotation from the Book of Isaiah and likely saw a correlation between his own concern for the plight of poor men such as Walter Broe and his father’s wider faith-based compassion. Befriending and helping an unfortunate man allowed Raphael to reconcile his humanitarian outlook with his father’s more doctrinaire commitment to Judaism, without assuming an official religious position.

Homeless men constituted only a fraction of Soyer’s early- to mid-1930s iconography. At the same time, he depicted female retail and clerical workers and shoppers around Union Square. Perhaps Soyer’s best-known painting is the Whitney Museum’s Office Girls, of 1936. Interpretations of the work invariably focus on the women depicted; writers consistently overlook the man peering inward from the composition’s left side -- Walter Broe, whose presence has deep meaning. By the time he painted Office Girls, Soyer had developed a special friendship, even an ‘identification,’ with Walter Broe. Broe spent nights in Soyer’s studio, they explored Bowery haunts together and they went together to visit other artists. “Broe, the man of the people, became Raphael’s alter ego, a persona through which the artist’s views on society and the human condition were expressed.”[7] The Office Girls onlooker is not a bland drone or an anonymous pedestrian, rather he simultaneously represents Soyer, the reticent and socially-awkward voyeur paying special attention to attractive women rushing by, and Broe, the down-and-out Everyman, surrounded by working girls just one rung up the social ladder.

Raphael Soyer’s last major painting featuring Walter Broe was the ironically entitled “Reading From Left to Right” of 1938. You can see Broe lighting a cigarette on the left in the company of two other gaunt, unhealthy vagrants. The background shows the window façade of a cheap Bowery eatery and was based on a Ben Shahn photograph. The eatery’s menu was written in dissolved Bon Ami cleanser on a plate glass window.[8] The protagonists wear heavy, ill-fitting, worn-out overcoats, and seem uncomfortable and exposed to the cold weather. They huddle together intentionally, fighting off the frigid air with only the brief flame of a single matchstick to keep them warm. The restaurant’s budget prices – “coffee and crullers 5 cents, pie 8 cents” – mock their poverty; even such small expenditures may have been beyond the means of these hungry vagrants. The title is an ironic reference to society page photographs in New York newspapers, with captions describing notable people seen at lavish uptown affairs: ‘reading from left to right, Mrs. Rockefeller, Mr. DuPont, Mrs. Vanderbilt, etc.’[9] Soyer rebukes the social pretensions of the upper class while calling attention to the miseries of the Bowery’s lower class, his humanistic message rising above the Depression decade.

During the summer of 1936, Soyer introduced Walter Broe to Isabel Bishop, an Art Students League colleague who had spent the previous decade working in rented studios overlooking Union Square Park. Bishop specialized in urban genres and often went down to street level to examine Union Square habitués, particularly the hordes of homeless men wiling the days away on park benches and under public statutes. Bishop recalled her initial encounter with one resident of Union Square:

There was a bum who was usually asleep, so I observed him and drew him. When he sat up one day, and I got my courage together – he looked very foreign, he looked like an Egyptian or something – I said very slowly, thinking he wouldn’t understand, that I had a studio and wanted to draw him one of these days, and he said, “Do you want me to take my clothes off?” This loft building I was in was being vacated gradually, and there was really nobody in the building but me, and so I fixed my easel at the farthest point from the door; when he came in he was more scared than I was, and he crept along that wall, you know. But he posed for me for years.[10]

After the initial awkwardness, Bishop and ‘the Egyptian’ began to feel more comfortable around each other and after the completion of the initial posing session, the Egyptian told Bishop “Well, if you need me, I’ll be under the horse’s tail,”[11] pointing out of the window to the George Washington equestrian monument in the park below.[12] Although the Egyptian came to Bishop’s studio for years, over time he proved to be a volatile and increasingly dangerous presence. On one occasion, he tossed an easel through her third story window, which crashed on the Union Square sidewalk below, luckily without injuring anyone. Isabel Bishop was thus overjoyed to meet the relatively meek and amiable Walter Broe, and gladly accepted him as a new model. The Egyptian, however, was not so pleased to discover he was being replaced. According to Bishop, when he learned that another man was cutting in on his action the Egyptian became enraged, tracking down Broe in the Bowery and beating him senseless.

Although Bishop was never assaulted, she occasionally felt physically intimidated by her Union Square models. Minna Citron, another artist who painted vagrants, had a studio adjoining Bishop’s during the mid-1930s, and she felt vulnerable when alone with the men. So, Bishop and Citron devised a plan: if one of the men ever went berserk when modeling, the one would nonchalantly place a phone call to the other with some cryptic message, so as not to alert the troublemaker. The cryptic message was the secret signal to call the police immediately.[13] Fortunately, it was never necessary to implement the covert stratagem; the worst the men did was steal petty items from the women’s studios.[14]

Isabel Bishop’s work during the 1930s was far less socially engaged than Raphael Soyer’s, even when portraying homeless people, whom Bishop dispassionately described as America’s ‘only leisure class.’[15] Bishop saw Depression-era homeless men, like Walter Broe, as not-necessarily-unhappy misfits, as strange characters contentedly living on the fringe.

People have said to me, ‘You must have been very socially conscious then because of the Depression,’ but I did not see it that way. I felt then, and still feel, that these [men] are aliens by temperament. I don’t say their economic disadvantages haven’t something to do with their condition but essentially, they are persons who are eccentric. They are really hedonists. I got to know them as I had a series of them come up here [to her studio]. They would bring each other and they would take anything they could lay their hands on.[16]

In 1936, Bishop produced her most ambitious portrayal of Walter Broe, an oil and tempera painting entitled Stooping Man. Bending down awkwardly, Broe reaches to retrieve someone’s discarded still-lit cigar lying on the ground just beyond his fingertips. Broe’s other arm stretches to his lower back, calling attention to a chronic backache brought on from years of sleeping on park benches, pavement or the floor. Bishop’s protagonist is a faceless social scavenger. Stooping Man is not about an individual; it is about a type of man living in Union Square during the 1930s. Helen Yglesias, Bishop’s biographer, noted the artist’s “fascination with the body deformed by ordinary clothing … the ‘armor’ of the male body: ill-fitting pants, klutzy shoes, jackets, coats, caps, brimmed hats, even strangling ties.”[17] Soyer usually defined Broe in terms of facial expressions and body language, but Bishop sees only a hedonistic bum wearing ragged clothes seeking a free nicotine fix.

In a later series of sketches and simple prints, Bishop set out to record what she called Walter Broe’s “subjective reality.” In one drawing, Men Putting on Coats of 1937, Bishop shows Broe undressing; his tattered coat a metonym for his humble social status. Another drawing, The Yawn of 1937, records Broe’s gape-mouthed expression of fatigue or boredom, the artist alluding perhaps to Broe’s laziness or membership in the “leisure class.”[18] Whereas Walter Broe is one of many identifiable Union Square denizens found in Raphael Soyer’s oeuvre, Isabel Bishop’s detached portrayals of homeless men are usually generalized. Bishop’s images of the poor represent class characteristics rather than the characteristics of any single individual. It is difficult to distinguish Bishop’s portrayals of Walter Broe from her portrayals of the Egyptian or her other Union Square models. Bishop confessed that she was not much concerned with the plight of specific models. “[Homeless men] pose very well,” she explained, “I should think they’d be very self-conscious and stiff, but they seem to sense what you want them for, what you’ve brought them in for, and so they act like themselves. They behave as they behave in the park.”[19]

The prominent painter and printmaker Reginald Marsh, among the most important Depression-era urban realists, also depicted Walter Broe. The scion of a rich family and artist parents, Marsh grew up in Nutley, New Jersey. As a child he was awkward and self-conscious, but had the appearance of a rambunctious Mark Twain character, a short stocky boy, with broad shoulders, a shock of red hair, and freckles.[20] Precocious yet inhibited, Marsh dreamed of being an artist and busily filled his diaries and schoolbooks with well-executed drawings, contemplating his future in the world beyond “gentle and sheltered” Nutley.[21] Standing at the window of his New Jersey home, young Reginald Marsh looked wistfully down across the lawn sloping toward a distant railroad rolling into New York.[22] He knew spring had arrived when a makeshift ‘hobo jungle’ appeared at the foot of the hill.[23] Watching the hoboes stretched out in the sun near the tracks, he daydreamed about what sort of men they were and the types of lives they lived.[24]

Decades later, Reginald Marsh maintained an artist’s studio in an old building on the southwest corner of Union Square. Raphael Soyer moved into the same building during the mid-1930s and introduced Walter Broe to Marsh. The men took to each other immediately. With the onset of the Depression, down-and-out men became a mainstay of Marsh’s oeuvre. Trawling for subject matter in the roughest sections of the Bowery district -- along Bowery Street from Cooper Union to Chatham Square or from Chinatown to Park Row -- unromantic street life fascinated Marsh. Luckier Boweryites stayed in bug-infested flophouses, dining on ten-cent ham-and-egg sandwiches and occasionally getting haircuts at barber colleges for fifteen cents. Less-fortunate ones slept in all-night restaurants, on trains or in doorways; passing days begging for change, waiting for soup kitchens and free missions to open.[25] The poignant drama was ripe with artistic possibilities. Marsh proclaimed “you can’t find anything better to draw.”[26]

Reginald Marsh was wealthy from birth, but he seemed to feel a greater kinship with poor men on the streets than members of his own economic class. Always attired in expensive Brooks Brothers suits even when visiting the dingiest corners of the Bowery,[27] the artist must have looked out of place, as if he had accidentally lost his way. But, in truth, he was in his element. As he quickly jotted down studies in his sketchbook, gregarious street characters invariably gathered around to watch or offer words of advice. The crowds of “wisecracking kibitzers jostling his elbow” did not inhibit his work, Marsh claimed.[28] On the contrary, he enjoyed their comments enormously. “Their remarks make more sense than the art critics … The other day a bum on a stringpiece – oh a regular smoke-hound, who had been looking over my shoulder, said: - ‘Pardon me, is that the negative?’ A hackneyed question is, ‘Can I have it when you get through?’ Another is, ‘What’s it worth, a quarter?”

Raphael Soyer once recounted a story suggesting Marsh treated his Bowery subjects as tenderly as family members:

Long ago in the 1930s, once after a day’s work in the middle of the week, a party happened spontaneously in my studio, for we were young enough then to be spontaneous about such things. A few artists were there … [as was] a Union Square character, a homeless man who attached himself to the artists, posed, ran errands for them and tidied their studios. We called him “The Orphan”. In the course of time the people became a little bit high and the first to pass out was “The Orphan.“

Immediately Reginald Marsh, who had all along been drinking silently and broodingly, went into action. With unexpected tenderness, he guided The Orphan to the cot, laid him gently down, removed his shoes and covered him. Like a dream, I remember the dry skin through the holes in the socks and the expression of concern on Reggie’s face.[29]

Compassion is evidenced in Marsh’s quietly affecting portraits of Walter Broe, “The Orphan.”

While it is true Walter Broe enjoyed a drink now and then, the demands of posing necessitated certain limitations. Raphael Soyer convinced Broe to give up drinking alcohol, in part, because it made him falter during long posing sessions. When Soyer had Broe pose for “Man Drinking Beer,” Broe held a glass filled with brown-dyed water.[30] However, Broe decided to switch to a real glass of beer, to “feel the part.”[31]

Reginald Marsh was much more the Baudelairean flâneur than Raphael Soyer or Isabel Bishop.[32] Marsh enjoyed absorbing his milieu by strolling the streets of lower Manhattan and he hastened Walter Broe out of the studio to accompany him on daily jaunts. Marsh depicted his new muse sleeping in dilapidated Bowery doorways, haunting East River docks and lying in vacant lots. The rundown settings were incorporated into paintings, which lend an air of authenticity to his images. Marsh used a 35mm Leica camera to document his artistic process. Occasionally, Marsh asked bystanders to take pictures of him as he worked. One such photo records an outdoor sketching session.[33] Walter Broe lies on the cold hard ground, his head propped up against the wall of an abandoned structure, a Lower East Side cityscape providing a backdrop. You can see Marsh in the foreground, finely arrayed in a heavy wool overcoat, matching argyle scarf, expensive Stetson hat, dress trousers and shiny black leather shoes. Broe stretches out uncomfortably on the ground before him. Broe’s position reveals the worn out soles of his old shoes. The social and economic contrast between the wealthy artistic flâneur and his destitute subject seems immense.

Although Reginald Marsh was wealthy, Broe’s urban hobo lifestyle mirrored the artist’s own day-to-day routine: walking the streets, hanging out in Union Square and the Bowery, and living on the fringes of society. Broe was the embodiment of a social outcast and Marsh, though of the upper classes, was an outcast by temperament. The artist seems to have realized that he and Broe were similar personalities. They both felt uneasy in social settings and found comfort in artists’ circles and bohemia. Marsh was often asked by his wife Felicia Meyer to go to swank, formal dinner parties, but Marsh confided to his friend Edward Laning that whereas “Felicia loves them, and I go … I’m unhappy … When I feel altogether out of it I take out my sketchpad and pen and begin to draw and suddenly everyone at the party gathers around me to watch.”[34]

Marsh consciously projected himself onto Broe by giving him one of his old Brooks Brothers suits, complete with a cane and briefcase. The charitable act made the homeless man look like the wealthy artist. One amusing photograph shows Walter Broe, now the dapper man-about-town, wearing Marsh’s suit in a grimy Bowery doorway, stylishly draping an overcoat over one arm. A cluster of Broe’s fellow Boweryites stand a few feet away, suspiciously eying the well-dressed homeless man. Broe bridges two worlds: the harsh reality of his Bowery existence, represented by the secondary background characters, and his pleasant newfound life as an artist’s model, represented by the equally well-dressed painter/photographer Reginald Marsh.

Between 1935 and 1939, many other urban realists – in addition to Soyer, Bishop and Marsh – employed Walter Broe as a model, either for simple portraits or as part of larger multi-figural compositions. The artists consistently superimposed onto Broe’s features qualities that the artists perceived in their own personalities or social self-identities. Like a mirror, the object became a reflection of the subject. Katherine Schmidt featured Broe in no less than ten paintings by 1939, the best-known being The Old Man Speaks. Schmidt recognized the importance of her Depression-era muse: “From the moment I saw [Broe] he appeared to me as a subject to be painted.”[35] “He interested me not only for the special qualities he had as an individual but for the symbolic character which to me he represented as well. Ill-used by life, Walter needed warmth, and he wanted something in his life which would give value.”[36]

Schmidt’s sentiments spoke for a host of New York artists, whose spirit of charity and collectivism sounded an affirmative note during the bleak Depression years. The culminating moment of Walter Broe’s modeling career came in the summer of 1939, when the Montross Gallery put on an exhibition of forty pictures featuring Broe, by Soyer, Bishop, Marsh, Minna Citron, Liza Mangor and Lazlo de Nagy.[37] Each exhibitor donated one or more works to be sold for Broe’s benefit. The proceeds were expressly intended to allow Broe to purchase a new set of false teeth and some new clothes.[38] The show garnered impressive press coverage. Life magazine gave the exhibition a two-page spread, with the headline “Bowery Bum lands on Fifth Avenue as noted Artists give him a benefit show.”[39]

Visitors to the gallery saw Broe portrayed in a variety of guises – the industrious hobo, indignant outcast, comical or poignant street character and melancholy grown-up orphan, among others. Spectators were left to ponder the model’s relationship with the artists and the images’ relationship to ‘reality.’ Broe was more a co-worker than a mere model and his depictions were infused with a gentleness and kindness in direct contrast to the harsh reality of his life on the streets. As he posed for Raphael Soyer and the others, Walter Broe sang Latin hymns he had learned in the Catholic orphanage. Broe’s time spent with the artists was a pleasant but temporary respite from his otherwise difficult existence. In the end, visitors to the Montross Gallery saw well-intentioned but romanticized renderings of the life of a Bowery bum. Walter Broe was caught up in the moment and told the Life reporter “On the merry-go-round of life at last I’ve grabbed the brass ring.”

After the show, Walter Broe disappeared for a number of years and lost contact with the artists. Perhaps he went off again in search of his lost mother. Minna Citron explained that in the early 1940s, after going missing for some years, Broe turned up dead in Bellevue Hospital’s city morgue.[40] He was still wearing one of Reginald Marsh’s Brooks Brothers suits with the artist’s original nametag inside and he was carrying one of Marsh’s old business cards. As a result, the authorities summoned Marsh to Bellevue to identify the body. An inveterately compulsive draftsman, Marsh took the opportunity to produce one final death drawing of his long-time model, friend and collaborator before they transported Walter Broe’s body up the East River for burial in Hart Island’s Potter’s Field.

About the author: James W. Ellis, PhD, is a Research Assistant Professor in the Academy of Visual Arts at Hong Kong Baptist University. Before moving to Asia, he lived, worked and was educated in the State of New York, which remains his primary research interest and passion.

[1] Minna Citron, “Walter Broe – Honest Hobo,” in Minna Citron: A Survey of Paintings and Works on Paper 1931-1989 (New York: Susan Teller Gallery, 1990), unpaginated.    

[2] Ibid.  

[3] Ibid.  

[4] Desmond Morris, Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior(London: Cape, 1977), 102.

[5] Raphael Soyer, “Résumé of an Aged Artist,” Art & Antiques(January 1988): 104.

[6] Patricia Hills, “The Artist Previews ‘Raphael Soyer’s New York: People & Places’,” in Raphael Soyer’s New York: People & Places (New York: The Cooper Union, 1984), unpaginated.

[7] Milly Heyd and Ezra Mendelsohn, “’Jewish’ Art? The Case of the Soyer Brothers,” Jewish Art 19 (1993): 206.

[8] Raphael Soyer, Self-Revealment: A Memoir (Iowa City: Maecenas Press, 1969), 95.

[9] David Bjelajac, “Regionalism Versus Social Realism,” in American Art: A Cultural History (London: Laurence King, 2000), 324.

[10] Barbaralee Diamonstein, “Bishop, Isabel,” in Inside New York’s Art World (New York: Rizzoli, 1979), 42-43.

[11] Sheldon Reich, Isabel Bishop (Tucson: The University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1974), 25. 

[12] Catherine Barnett, “A Woman of Substance: Remembering Isabel Bishop,” Art & Antiques (December 1988): 66.

[13] Citron, “Walter Broe,” unpaginated.

[14] Cindy Nemser, “Conversation with Isabel Bishop,” The Feminist Art Journal 5 (Spring 1976): 18. 

[15] Una E. Johnson, Isabel Bishop: Prints and Drawings, 1925-1964 (Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum, 1964), 10.

[16] Nesmer, “Conversation,” 18.

[17] Helen Yglesias, “Isabel Bishop – Her Life and Work,” in Isabel Bishop (New York: Rizzoli, 1989), 14.

[18] Ellen Wiley Todd, The “New Woman” Revised (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 296.

[19] Isabel Bishop, “Isabel Bishop Discusses Genre Drawings,” American Artist XVII (Summer 1953): 46-7.

[20] Lloyd Goodrich, “Reginald Marsh: Painter of New York in its Wildest Profusion,” American Artist 19 (September 1955): 19-20.

[21] Edward Laning, “Through the Eyes of Marsh,” Art News 54 (September 1955): 23.

[22] Edward Laning, East Side West Side All Around Town: a Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings by Reginald Marsh (Tucson: The University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1969), 80.

[23] Laning, “Through the Eyes of Marsh”: 23.

[24] Laning, East Side West Side, 23, 89.

[25] The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s New York (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), 120.

[26] “Manhattan Portrait,” Time Magazine 66 (November 7, 1955): 74.

[27] Marilyn Cohen, Reginald Marsh’s New York: Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Photographs (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Dover Publications, Inc., 1983), note #61, 53.

[28] Douglas Gilbert, “Camera Craze Has Made American Artists Feel Inferior, Says Reginald Marsh, Deploring a Lost Quality in Painting,” New York World-Telegram, October 5, 1938.

[29] Raphael Soyer, “Reginald Marsh 1898-1954,” Reality 3 (Summer 1955): 6. 

[30] “Bowery Bum lands on Fifth Avenue as noted Artists give him a benefit show,” Life 7 (July 3, 1939): 39-40. See David E. Scherman’s photographs of Walter Broe in Raphael Soyer’s studio, ca. June 1939. 

[31] Ibid.

[32] Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (New York and London: Da Capo Press, 1986), 9.  In his 1859 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire wrote, “the crowd is his element, as the air that of the birds and water of fishes.  His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.  For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is immense joy to set up house in the middle of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.” 

[33] “Educated Like a Rich Man’s Son Marsh Prefers To Paint Poor Men,” Life 9 (January 9, 1939): 24-26. See Fritz Henle’s photograph of Reginald Marsh with Walter Broe, ca. 1938. 

[34] Edward Laning, East Side West Side, 92.

[35] Citron, “Walter Broe,” unpaginated.

[36] Lloyd Goodrich, The Katherine Schmidt Shubert Bequest and a Selective View of her Art (New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1982), 6.

[37] Citron, “Walter Broe,” unpaginated.

[38] Ibid.  Minna Citron formed a special bond with Walter Broe.  She allowed Broe to babysit her eleven-year-old son, Tom, and took Broe to her Connecticut farm to work as a butler.  To many artists Broe was much more than a reliable model; he was a trusted friend.

[39] “Bowery Bum lands on Fifth Avenue,” 39-40.

[40] The WPA Guide to New York City,316-7. In 1939 about 20,000 bodies came to Bellevue’s morgue and 8500 went unclaimed.  The unclaimed bodies were photographed and described for the New York Police Department’s missing persons files.  Many of the cadavers went to private embalming schools or medical schools for dissections.  Almost 200 per week went by barge up the East River to Hart’s Island, where they were buried in Potter’s Field [apparently Walter Broe’s final resting place]. 


Barnett, Catherine. “A Woman of Substance: Remembering Isabel Bishop.” Art & Antiques (December 1988): 66.

Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Translated by Jonathon Mayne. New York and London: Da Capo Press, 1986. 

Bishop, Isabel. “Isabel Bishop Discusses Genre Drawings.” American Artist XVII (Summer 1953): 46-7.

Bjelajac, David. “Regionalism Versus Social Realism.” In American Art: A Cultural History, 318-325. London: Laurence King, 2000.

“Bowery Bum lands on Fifth Avenue as noted Artists give him a benefit show.” Life 7 (July 3, 1939): 39-40.

Citron, Minna. “Walter Broe – Honest Hobo.” In Minna Citron: A Survey of Paintings and Works on Paper 1931-1989, unpaginated. New York: Susan Teller Gallery, 1990. 

Cohen, Marilyn. Reginald Marsh’s New York: Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Photographs. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Dover Publications, Inc., 1983.

Diamonstein, Barbaralee. “Bishop, Isabel.” In Inside New York’s Art World, 42-43. New York: Rizzoli, 1979.

“Educated Like a Rich Man’s Son Marsh Prefers To Paint Poor Men.” Life9 (January 9, 1939): 24-26.

Gilbert, Douglas. “Camera Craze Has Made American Artists Feel Inferior, Says Reginald Marsh, Deploring a Lost Quality in Painting.” New York World-Telegram, October 5, 1938.

Goodrich, Lloyd. “Reginald Marsh: Painter of New York in its Wildest Profusion.” American Artist 19 (September 1955): 18-23.

Goodrich, Lloyd. The Katherine Schmidt Shubert Bequest and a Selective View of her Art. New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1982.

Heyd, Milly, and Ezra Mendelsohn. “’Jewish’ Art? The Case of the Soyer Brothers.” Jewish Art 19 (1993): 195-211.

Hills, Patricia. “The Artist Previews ‘Raphael Soyer’s New York: People & Places.” In Raphael Soyer’s New York: People & Places, unpaginated. New York: The Cooper Union, 1984.

Johnson, Una E. Isabel Bishop: Prints and Drawings, 1925-1964. Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum, 1964.

Laning, Edward. East Side West Side All Around Town: a Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings by Reginald Marsh. Tucson: The University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1969.

Laning, Edward. “Through the Eyes of Marsh.” Art News 54 (September 1955): 22-24.

“Manhattan Portrait.” Time Magazine 66 (November 7, 1955): 74.

Morris, Desmond. Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior. London: Cape, 1977.

Nemser, Cindy. “Conversation with Isabel Bishop.” The Feminist Art Journal 5 (Spring 1976): 18. 

Reich, Sheldon. Isabel Bishop. Tucson: The University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1974. 

Soyer, Raphael. “Reginald Marsh 1898-1954.” Reality3 (Summer 1955): 6. 

Soyer, Raphael. “Résumé of an Aged Artist.” Art & Antiques (January 1988): 104.

Soyer, Raphael. Self-Revealment: A Memoir. Iowa City: Maecenas Press, 1969.

The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s New York. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.

Todd, Ellen Wiley. The “New Woman” Revised. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

“Walter Broe: Bowery Model.” Life 3 July 1939.

Yglesias, Helen. Isabel Bishop. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Ebenezer “Indian” Allan: An 18th Century Walter Mitty

By Michael Keene
Copyright © 2015 by the author. All rights reserved.

from his upcoming book The Psychic Highway-The Untold Story of How the Erie Canal Changed America

Ebenezer “Indian” Allan was --- for lack of a better and/or polite word --- a character!  In familiar terms, we could call him a scam artist; an imposter; a charlatan or a very good actor. The bottom line, however, was that Indian Allan’s heart and sliding allegiances were always justified --- by him.  And, like the charming Walter Mitty character, he was convincing in his efforts and self-assigned roles.
If Indian Allan were here today, he’d surely want to tell his story, himself. What might he say, in a fictionalized version?~
“I was born on the 17th day of September in 1752 in Morris Township, New Jersey, and I died on the 13th day of April in 1813 in a place called Delaware Township, way up in Canada.”
I’ve lived most of my life in the wild, but I’ve always been for the underdog. I consider myself a friend of the Seneca Indians and the Iroquois people. I guess we trusted each other.” 
“I was down there in Pennsylvania around 1777 when something called to me to join the Loyalist unit of the war regiment under Major John Butler. You remember him! They called his rogue brigade Butler’s Rangers. Because of my good relationship with the Indians, I was sent to the Indian Department in 1781 and the following year . . . (now, make sure no one else is listening). . . I became a Loyalist spy (can you imagine that?) assigned to the Genesee River area in western New York.”
“That was a hard job, but sweet Mary Jemison made my stay easier. They called her the “White Woman of the Genesee”; the Indians adopted her when she was a little girl.   I lived with her, there, through my days of ‘espionage’.”
“Between 1782 and 1783 I moved to what would be called Mount Morris, after that rich American man with money for the war, Robert Morris.  It was winter and it was cold! I needed to provide for myself, so I started farming and trading my goods.  I was a Lieutenant with the Indian Department by then . . . but the war was coming to an end and they started letting men go. I was one of them. That’s what I got for siding with the British against these new Americans.”
“I was really laid low by this. I asked myself, ‘What can yak’ do, Indian, to help the American cause, this time?  And, my Iroquois friends?’ I decided to show ‘em something they could see with their own eyes, to let them know that I could bring about a sincere peace. “
“I knew I was taking a big chance, but I snuck into a big Indian village and into the chief’s longhouse!  I looked around for something important to signify ‘peace’.  Ah! There it was! A beauty of a wampum belt!  When the American Indian Commissioner sees this, he’ll believe it means the Iroquois want to live peacefully among the Americans and my Indian “brothers” will honor the gesture! I felt that if I could live for another few hundred years, I may even have a shot at the Nobel Peace Prize!

Ebenezer’s Plight

“Well, I spoke too soon. The British were still very mad at me and sent out a party of soldiers to hunt me down! They found me alright and threw me in prison! Since the end of the war, I was treated cruelly and inhumanly! There I was, robbed, stripped, plundered and imprisoned like some common criminal! And, for what? I was doing the right thing!  For 10 months I was shifted from prison to prison; from Fort Niagara in New York, then up to Montreal in Canada and to Cataraqui, in Ontario.”

I’m a Lover When I’m Not a Fighter

“Polygamy reduced to a fine art with a successful audacity that might excite the admiration of a Mormon elder." 3

“I made my way back to the Genesee country I knew and loved . . . and to the women I knew and loved.  I took Sally as my Indian wife by blessing of my Indian brothers. She gave me two daughters, Chloe and Mary. Around 1789 we canoed down river to a 474-acre farmstead in what would become Scottsville. Some will say the Seneca gave this land to me; others say --- because there is a deed to prove it --- that I bought it for 200 pounds in Massachusetts money from a man named Israel Chapin.”
“A Mr. Chapman came our way on his way to Niagara. His daughter, Lucy, accompanied him. He seemed to like me . . .  and so did Lucy. I wasn’t intending for it to happen, but Mr. Chapman gave me her hand in marriage. Lucy stayed and her father went west --- alone.”
“Someone would write that I ‘combined the lasciviousness of a Turk with the bloodthirstiness of a savage’ in my life with Lucy and Sally and my children . . . and others.  Social conventions meant nothing to me.  Yes, during my years in Delaware Township I was surrounded by many “wives” and more children.”
“I was living happily and was not aware of the big meeting (the Buffalo Creek Indian Council of 1787 or Treaty of Big Tree) with Mr. Oliver Phelps and Mr. Nathaniel Gorham and the Iroquois chiefs. The white men wanted a large portion of land west of the Genesee. My brothers insisted that their “Great Spirit” wanted no white men west of the great river.  Mr. Phelps said the Seneca needed a grist mill to grind maize just as white settlers needed one to ground wheat. A mill would ease women’s work.”
“Mr. Phelps said he needed --- and got --- 288-square miles west of the Genesee approximately 12 miles wide, and stretching 24-miles from Avon to Lake Ontario. He became owner of the largest mill lot in the world.”
“The grist mill needed an operator and I was the person for the job! I was given the 100-acre site with the understanding that I would build and run the mill. A small, natural island in the river helped channel water to the mill and some 3 and 4-foot waterfalls  gave enough drop in water level to turn the water wheels to fuel a sawmill and a grist mill.”
“I brought in a saw blade and managed to connect it to a makeshift water wheel to saw timber and lumber. I had help from the crew of a schooner docked nearby and from Seneca helpers. History will tell you that almost single-handedly, I cleared the land, cut and hauled logs, balanced two 150-pound millstones from Massachusetts, installed mill irons and constructed 2 water wheels.  We didn’t have fancy tools like you have today!  We used native skill, our muscles and a lot of determination. History will also tell you that we celebrated for 2 days. Yes, we did, with ‘firewater’ and much rum.”

The 100-Acre Tract That Could
Before Phelps and Gorham defaulted on their purchase agreement in 1790 and before the unsold portions of the purchase reverted back to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, they gave the 100-acre land tract, known as The Mill Yard Tract, to Ebenezer “Indian” Allen, who did successfully build a grist mill and a sawmill there. Allan built his sawmill first in the summer of 1789, then sawed timber to build his gristmill. The frame was erected in November of the same year.  There, on the Upper Falls of what would become the prosperous city of Rochester, were the beginnings of a thriving mill economy.
The location of this 100-acre tract for its first mills, however, was deeply located in the dense wilderness. While construction continued, the area was infested with snakes and mosquitoes which spread “Swamp Fever” or what is commonly known as malaria.
In March of 1792, with no settlers or land speculators interested in the surrounding land, Indian Allen sold the 100-acre tract to Benjamin Barton, Sr. of New Jersey for $1,250. Barton quickly resold the property to Samuel Ogden, an agent for Robert Morris. Ogden, in turn, sold the property in 1794 to Charles Williamson, agent for a small group of British investors called the Pulteney Association.  In 1803 the Association sold the 100-acre tract for $1,750 with a five-year land contract, to Col. Nathaniel Rochester and 2 lesser partners, Maj. Charles Carroll and Col. William Fitzhugh, all of Hagerstown, Maryland.
Nathaniel Rochester (et al) had just purchased the 100-acre tract that would become the city of Rochester, New York.