The Playground Paintings of Jerome Myers, 1907, 1926, 1937

[Jumping right in to Throwback Thursday since I am in the middle of relocating my laboratory to a new place with room for scientific co-working! And art! So excited. Back to regular posting next week.]

The paintings of artist Jerome Myers provide an insightful view of changes in the American playground space in New York City in the early 20th century.  The first, simply entitled ‘The Playground‘ , c. 1907,  shows a grassy sports field to which some play equipment for smaller children has been added.  This was the common format for early play spaces, though the children’s play area was more often separated from the field by a hedge or a fence. The word ‘playground’ was at first nearly synonymous with ‘sports field’.   Note how young the children are, and the long (but orderly!) line awaiting a turn at the single piece of equipment. (“The Playground” sold at Christies for $30,550 in 2000)

“Playground Pleasures” is from 1926 and shows that the play and its equipment has separated from the sports field and moved into the fabric of the city.  The urban square has a maypole and a teeter-totter, and the sheer number of adults around indicate that they were intentionally sited in a place with a high density of mothers and children, likely on a shopping street…this is basically a ‘mall’ playground. (“Playground Pleasures” is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum).

City Playground” from 1937 immortalizes the sandbox, whose portability and low cost quickly made it an essential urban distraction, without the maintenance and indeed, risk of equipment with moving parts.  New York City was not the first in this regard; Boston was the great city of what were then called ‘sand gardens’, in which children in sun bonnets sprouted like so many flowers.  From Boston, the idea spread rapidly throughout the United States, often implemented by philanthropic women’s groups…another thesis topic waiting to happen.  (“City Playground” is in a private collection.)

Jerome Myers was born in Virginia but spent his adult life painting New York City.  Any Gotham history buffs who can pinpoint the location of these scenes?

“All my life I had lived, worked and played in the poorest streets of American cities. I knew them and their population and was one of them. Others saw ugliness and degradation there, I saw poetry and beauty, so I came back to them. I took a sporting chance of saying something out of my own experience and risking whether it was worthwhile or not. That is all any artist can do.”

One Response to “The Playground Paintings of Jerome Myers, 1907, 1926, 1937”

  1. Ken Ratner said:

    Thank you for this interesting and informative article on the playground pictures of Jerome Myers. He was one of the greatest American artists, and with articles like this, his legacy will live on forever.

    August 30, 2014 at 10:20 pm

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