The Eyes

The Eyes

Monday, November 9, 2015

Inside Grace Hartigan's Grand Street Brides

Grand Street Brides | 1954
Oil on Canvas | 72 9/16 in. x 102 3/8 in.
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Grace Hartigan thought deeply about the colors she would use before she tackled her six-foot-by-nine-foot painting, titled in her journals, Bridal Store Mannequins. She walked around the Lower East Side neighborhood outside her 25 Essex Street studio, taking in the drifts of white fabric, lace, and wispy netting displayed on the dainty mannequins. Hartigan saw them imprisoned behind the glass storefronts on Grand Street, then known as “Bride’s Row.” She purchased a two dollar wedding gown from a thrift store and tacked it to her studio wall, along with photos of the bridal shop windows for further inspiration. Hartigan once said, “It seems ludicrous to me to go through all that fuss,” referring to the fiasco of a wedding in the 1950s. She added that she painted “things I’m against to … give them the magic they don’t have.”

In this post-war world, Hartigan personally smashed the stereotype of the modern American woman—the married, child-rearing, housewife. The tradition that began with a woman floating down the aisle, draped from head-to-toe in virginal white, being handed over to another man by the woman’s father, to be cared for the rest of her life. This ideal couldn’t be more removed from Hartigan’s own personal life. She struggled with her identity in a male-dominated, testosterone-fueled art community in mid-century New York City, even going so far as to sign her early work George Hartigan.  By the time she painted Grand Street Brides, Hartigan had been married twice and had sent her young son to live with his father's parents. She sometimes wrestled with what she needed to do to make her way as an artist versus society's expectations of her as a woman.

Also, a part of her thinking during the time she executed this work would have been the knowledge of the arranged marriages rampant among the immigrant population living in her Lower East Side neighborhood. Note the dead and hollow eyes of the brides in her picture, devoid of love or feelings, yet dressed up pretty and put on display for all to admire.

In a letter to critic Harold Rosenberg in 1954, Hartigan attempted to explain her work: "I think some of my subjects are loneliness, alienation, and anxiety. The figures in my paintings ask, 'What are we doing? What do we mean to each other?' The figures never look at each other, but have some personal meaning." The same year Frank O'Hara wrote of the brides who "face without bitterness the glassy shallowness of American life as their showcase."  Hartigan also makes reference in her journals to Picasso's 1907 Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (seen below), which not only parallels the poses of the subjects, but perhaps makes a connection between her impression of what it meant to be a bride and the prostitutes he painted in that work.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon | 1907
Pablo Picasso
Oil on Canvas | 96 in. x 92 in.
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Grace Hartigan's Grand Street Brides: The Modern Bride as Mannequin by Aliza Edelman (2013)
The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955

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