Sunday, October 30, 2022

Stories Told by an Artist

Stephen Crane (1871–1900)
From Stephen Crane: Prose & Poetry

Stephen Crane in Corwin Knapp Linson’s studio on West 22nd Street, Manhattan, c. 1894, when Crane was writing The Red Badge of Courage. At the beginning of 1894, Linson had moved his studio to this room, three blocks away from where Crane lived with his friends in the old Art Students League building. Linson makes an appearance as “Corinson” in “Stories Told by an Artist.” (Syracuse University Libraries via Roger Williams University)

The oil painting in the foreground is Linson’s Purple and Gold (see image below), which was completed in late 1892 and shown at the Spring 1893 Exhibition of the National Academy of Design, at which it was listed for $75 (and apparently did not find a buyer). Linson’s work is largely forgotten; Purple and Gold reappeared at an auction two years ago and sold for $2,500.
“We slept two or three in the big bed, and one on the coal box,” wrote Nelson Greene fifty years later, remembering early autumn of 1893, when three cash-strapped artists allowed 21-year-old Stephen Crane to move into their small one-room apartment in the old Art Students League building on East 23rd Street in New York. Greene’s roommates “played poker and smoked constantly from the afternoon till midnight or after, while I went to bed early so I could put in 9 hours daily as a proofreader at $18 a week.” Beyond that paltry sum, there wasn’t much in the way of financial support for them to live on. “The four of us were often so hard up that we were down to $2 on Saturday morning. This we invested in a big wad of frankfurters, rye bread, coffee and condensed milk, which took us through the two days.”

After a few months, their situation improved a little when one of the men, R. G. Vosburgh, found work as an illustrator for a newspaper syndicate. “With Crane the studio had four occupants,” Vosburgh remembered in an article published the year after Crane’s death. “He could contribute nothing to its maintenance, but he added very little to the expense, and the others were glad to have him. . . . It was during that time that The Red Badge of Courage was written.”

Surrounded by horse stables and saddleries (East 24th, the street behind, was known as Old Stable Row well into the twentieth century), the old Art Students League building had previously been a Carhart & Needham melodeon plant and then the headquarters for famed piano manufacturer Sohmer & Co. before becoming a school for fledgling artists. By the early 1890s, the makeshift academy was overcrowded, infested with rats and roaches, and enveloped by a pungent combination of tannery odors and equine manure. The artists had good company, though: across the street was the aging City College of New York building, packed beyond capacity with more than 1,700 undergraduates. Hoping to improve conditions for its students, the League had recently opened its new (and present) facility further uptown, but artists were allowed to remain in the old building as new businesses moved in—including the Allison Chemical Company, suppliers of “everything for the destruction of vermin.” Crane and his roommates paid $14 a month for their room. The landlord, Charles Austin Needham, was the son of the melodeon manufacturer, a former League student, and a landscape painter who kept his own studio in the building until the late 1910s; one of Crane’s friends later recalled that he was “as considerate of our financial difficulties as he could be in reason.”

Crane moved out in April 1894, and it wasn’t long after the school finished closing its former location that Crane and his friends began to romanticize their time there. “The old building will be to a great many artists of this country a place endeared to them by the memory of many an escapade of the old student days when the boys of the life class [an advanced workshop with models] used to row gaily with the boys of the ‘preparatory antique’ [a required first-year class] in the narrow halls,” Crane wrote in his notebook. “Everyone was gay, joyous, and youthful in those blithe days and the very atmosphere of the old place cut the austere and decorous elements out of a man’s heart and made him rejoice when he could divide his lunch of sandwiches with the model.”
Corwin Knapp Linson's Purple and Gold.
(Click image to enlarge; courtesy Heritage Auctions)

In the fall of 1894, Crane memorialized his friends in a trio of vignettes that appeared as “Stories Told by an Artist” in The New York Press. The four men are disguised by pseudonyms: Nelson Greene becomes Purple; Vosburgh is Warwickson (or Great Grief); the remaining roommate, William W. Carroll, is Wrinkles; and Crane himself is Little Pennoyer, or Penny. The successful artist who drops by their room is Crane’s older friend, Corwin Knapp Linson, barely concealed by the name of Corlinson. For most of the 1890s, Linson earned his keep illustrating magazines while struggling to sell his paintings. In Linson’s studio a short walk away, Crane perused old issues of Century Magazine containing “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” a series published during the 1880s that provided him with background material for The Red Badge of Courage.

In the recently published Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane, Paul Auster singles out “Stories Told by an Artist” for its “down-to-the-ground realism” and for Crane’s ability to find warmth and wit despite the hardship and hunger. “The caustic humor that occasionally surges up in the three episodes comes from the characters themselves and not from an act of willful intention on the part of the author—an advance—and Crane is particularly adept here at capturing what I would call an air of good-natured nastiness in the dialogue, the taunting, teasing exchanges of young men forced to live together in cramped quarters, and the episodes glide along smoothly and convincingly with no wrong turns.” Crane later revised these sketches and incorporated them in his fourth novel, The Third Violet.

Note: A table d'hôte refers to a restaurant, often with shared tables, where several courses of only two or three choices are charged at a fixed total price.

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Wrinkles had been peering into the little drygoods box that acted as a cupboard. “There is only two eggs and a half of a loaf of bread left,” he announced brutally. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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