A year ago I was sharing with you Hendrick Avercamp’s Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, an early-17th century outdoors scene depicting the dwellers of a Dutch community having fun and making the most of the cold weather. This year, however, we’re going to 20th century New York.
American painter Agnes Tait would probably be completely forgotten today if it wasn’t for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), a governmental program under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal aimed at supporting struggling artists during the Great Depression. Ultimately acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Skating in Central Park (zoom in here) is, for many of us, the only legacy Tait left behind, her only masterpiece.
Based on Tait’s outdoors sketches and completed in her studio, the artwork is reminiscent of 16th and 17th century Dutch winter paintings, with its many colorful characters, flattened in their depiction, and the bird’s-eye view revealing the cheerful scene. Set against a yellow-green dusk sky, the blue silhouettes of the buildings, however, gently remind us that we’re not in the Netherlands. We’re in New York City.
Lovers embracing, friends holding hands, children clinging to their parents for extra stability, everyone seems to be having a jolly good time as they skate along on the frozen lake – some tentatively, others with more confidence. On the snow-covered slopes all around them sleds are passing one by one like a procession.
But even while enjoying this delightful winter scene, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Tait. Just like with Lily Furedi, the Hungarian-American painter employed by PWAP and best known for her 1934 painting The Subway, Tait’s biggest nod of recognition came through the same New Deal federal program, which paid 3,749 artists to depict moments from everyday American life. PWAP might have been a lifeline for many during the rough years of the Great Depression, but it’s also a painful inventory of the countless careers that never quite took off.