Art Imitates Land Use

After the Rain. Paul Cornoyer, c. 1900. (More about the artist, here.)

There’s something captivating about the contrast between nature and human development. Parks, urban waterfronts, skyline views from the countryside: People are drawn to these. I think Paul Cornoyer captured these kinds of contrasts well, and he also depicted other aspects of nature, such as weather, season, and light, as they affected the city.

One of the unique qualities of late-Victorian urbanism, which Cornoyer painted, is that it was the latest and most modern period in which development norms maintained a bright line between human construction and the wildness of nature. This was done by placing parks amid the concrete, and also at the city’s edge. Cast-iron, elevators, and railroads made very high densities possible by the late 19th century. Meanwhile, cars had yet to facilitate market-driven sprawl, and Howard and others had yet to provide the vision of a democratized suburbia.

So, there was still a market- and tradition- and technology-driven compactness to new places. And, at their edges, one would typically find very sharp transitions to much lower densities. Below is a detailed lithograph showing the northern frontier of New York City’s real estate development, as it stood in 1897— approximately when Cornoyer was painting Madison Square. Harlem can be seen at the far left; the foreground is (today) the Bronx; and Washington Heights is in the background, beyond the Harlem River: