Manhattan Skyline

John Held, II (American, 1889-1958)

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  • Painted from a vantage point high in a building near New York’s Central Park, Held transforms the massive skyscrapers into flat geometric patterns of color and light.
  • Liberal use of the white paper helps define the sharp angularity of the buildings’ sunlit façades.
  • Held began his career as a commercial artist, and his illustrations defined the extravagance and exuberance of the Roaring Twenties. With the onset of the Great Depression, however, the artist began to create simple, austere views of the Manhattan skyline.
The Precisionist Aesthetic of John Held Jr.’s Cityscapes

John Held, Jr., was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to a father who was a copperplate engraver and illustrator. While still in his teens, Held began his illustration career after only a brief apprenticeship with a sculptor. He moved to New York and continued working as a commercial artist. Held’s illustrations defined the “Roaring Twenties Jazz Age.” They were humorous, risqué, and bold. The flapper became associated with Held’s drawings of a woman with a high hemline, cloche hat, and long, thin limbs. When the Depression hit, demands for his flapper art diminished, and he turned to other forms of art. At the height of Held’s career he was extremely successful and earned over a million dollars a year, had a home in Miami, a penthouse in New York, and a 156-acre estate in Westport, Connecticut, with its own zoo and golf course.

From 1934-1936, Held’s view of the world turned more sober. During this time, he created a suite of strangely wistful views of the Manhattan skyline. Most of the watercolors were painted during sunrise and sunset hours, including Manhattan Skyline. The upper stories of a building on Sixth Avenue near Central Park afforded Held a high vantage point. From this perspective, the artist transforms the massive New York skyscrapers into flat patterns of right angles and colored shadows. Making liberal use of the white paper, Held defines the buildings’ sunlit façade. Shades of deep purple and blue with a tinge of red delineate the shadowed surfaces.

Armitage, Shelley and Laurinda S. Dixon, John Held, Jr.: Illustrator of the Jazz Age. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1989.

Piece was purchased from the artist's widow.

Object Information

John Held, II (American, 1889-1958)
creation date
watercolor over pencil on off-white paper
19-1/2 x 13-3/4 in.
25-1/4 x 19-3/8 x 1-1/2 in. (framed)
mark descriptions
dated in pencil, L.R.: June 19 - 34
accession number
credit line
Mary B. Milliken Fund
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

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