older: Mourning Fan

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Arthur Clifton Goodwin (1864–1929)

Arthur Clifton Goodwin, born in 1864 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was a self-taught painter best known for his scenes of early twentieth-century Boston and New York City. Having worked under Louis Kronberg in Boston, Goodwin soon developed a reputation in the early 1900s and 1910s as a master of impressionist cityscapes. Depictions of Boston landmarks can be found among his oeuvre, including Copley Square, the Public Garden, and the wharves of Boston Harbor. In the early 1920s, Goodwin moved to New York City to continue painting, before returning to and dying in Boston in 1929. Today, his works may be found in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, among other institutions.

Copley Square Liberty Loan Parade
L: Copley Square, Boston, c. 1908, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; R: Liberty Loan Parade, 1918, Indianapolis Museum of Art (depicts Boston Public Garden)

The Custom House Tower from Long Wharf, 1913
Oil on canvas, 36 x 40 in., McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, Gift of Dr. Harry and Ruth Kozol, 1991.6

When Boston’s Custom House Tower was finished in 1915 atop the original 1849 building, the 496-foot Greek Revival structure was the city’s first true skyscraper—unsurpassed in height until the completion of the Prudential Tower in 1964. Now home to a corporate hotel and still serving as an iconic part of Boston’s skyline, the tower was disparaged by architectural historians in its first decades as nothing more than “a vast chimney stack rising from a Roman temple.” Both the Custom House Tower and Long Wharf were favorite subjects of Goodwin's.

Copley Square
Custom House Tower from the Public Garden, Boston, c. 1914, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Looming tall over the urban activity below, Goodwin’s rendition of Custom House Tower is easily identifiable despite his impressionistic abstraction of its features. He places the tower squarely in the painting’s vertical axis; however, the building does remain partially subordinate to the ships that dominate the central and left foreground. Goodwin’s blurry impression of the tower, although lacking in architectural particulars, dominates the polychromatic, low-to-the-ground Boston skyline.

Goodwin renders the figures engaged in commercial activity on Long Wharf as a collective unit. The specific people and type of activity are not important in this rapid impression; rather, the collective sum of this hustle-and-bustle predominates the scene. Since colonial times, Boston Harbor had served as an important locus of maritime trade, and contemporary photographs of the pier demonstrate the crowded chaos of daily commerce. Despite the glut of activity, Goodwin still somewhat idealizes the space of the harbor. As the photo from 1914 shows, the area in and around Long Wharf was much more crowded with ships, people, and harbor buildings than depicted in the painting. Viewers thus necessarily take in the beauty of the ships and the skyline before they notice the commercial activity of the pier, relegated to the canvas’s bottom-right.

Copley Square
Leonard Small, T-Wharf, Boston, Mass., 1914

The calm of Boston Harbor’s dark blue waters contrasts with the hubbub of commercial activity on the pier. Still, yellow-brown muck encroaches from near the boats, suggesting a tension between the natural harbor and human pollution. Ultimately, the verticality of the ships draws the viewer’s eyes upward to the Custom House Tower, away from the horizontality of the water.

Goodwin’s view of the city is one wherein the international commerce of the sea meets the industrial urbanity of the port. In this liminal space between aqua and terra, between commerce and industry, Goodwin depicts a polychromatic skyline, juxtaposed against the starkly white Custom House Tower. While buildings in early twentieth-century Boston were limited by municipal law to no taller than 125 feet, the new Custom House Tower was granted an exception due to its status as a federal site of maritime trade–a decision not without controversy. The juxtaposition of the new (monochromatic, tall, clean, individual) with the old (polychromatic, short, dirty, collective) architecture perhaps serves to highlight the intra-urban tensions of the constantly developing maritime city.

It is not only the Custom House Tower that encroaches upon the sky; Goodwin is sure to depict smoke from mighty smokestacks to the right polluting an already smoggy atmosphere. Only hints of azure emerge far above the backdrop of 1910s industrial Boston. The artist’s rapid impression of the urban sky presents the viewer with a stylistic ambiguity. Are we meant to ponder the vivid atmospheric effect of smoke among the clouds? Or are the smokestacks merely producing wisps of tainted air, ultimately secondary in effect to the sky’s natural haze?

While multi-masted, cargo-laden schooners would have likely predominated the harbor around Long Wharf on an average trading day, this painting features a number of catboats, more commonly used for fishing and transportation. The largest central catboat divides the foreground of the painting, paralleling the Custom House Tower’s compositional division of the background. Its unfurled, mighty sail matches the stark white of the tower, contrasted against the colorful skyline and muddy blue harbor waters. A single multi-mast schooner, with its sails furled and its hull perhaps filled with passengers or cargo, can be seen in the painting’s midground, resting perpendicular to the mighty tower.

For more information on the Custom House, visit the City of Boston’s Buildings We Love


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