Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy - Portrait of a Lady (On the Subway)

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Image of Portrait of a Lady (On the Subway)

George Grosz , (Jul 26, 1893–Jul 6, 1959)

Portrait of a Lady (On the Subway)

26 3/8 in. x 19 in. (66.99 cm x 48.26 cm)

Medium and Support: Watercolor on wove paper
Credit Line: Gift of Lilian and Peter M. Grosz (PA 1945) in memory of Michael Grosz (PA 1974)
Accession Number: 1992.24


George Grosz (1893–1959) arrived in New York in 1932 to teach summer school at the Art Students League. When the artist returned to his native Germany the following fall, he found that political conditions in Berlin had deteriorated during his absence. As a result, he and his family emigrated to the United States in January of 1933, just eighteen days before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.

Safe from the horrors of Nazi Germany, Grosz was optimistic about building a new career in America which he viewed as a country filled with hope and endless opportunity. Grosz was so taken with the diversity of New York that between 1932 and 1935 his work is almost entirely devoted to the celebration of metropolitan street life. Ina letter to a friend he wrote, "New York-I love this town. I have seen tramps sleeping on newspapers in Union Square . . . I have seen Negroes, Chinese, red-haired Irishmen, sailors; Broadway aglow at night; the huge department stores; workers in overalls suspended between steel girders. . . Wall Street and shouting brokers at the stock exchange . . . I have seen obscene shows, where sweet girls stripped to the applause of the men . . . this town is full of pictures and contrasts." Armed with sketchbook, he explored the city by foot, bus, and subway taking notes of all he saw. Drawing in pencil, Grosz would often jot down notes about color and color combinations. The quick line sketches were then transformed into finished, detailed watercolors back at his studio. This portrait is a finished version of a drawing executed while Grosz was riding the subway..

These largely apolitical slices of city life stand in strong contrast to Grosz's brutally satirical drawings, oils, and watercolors produced in pre-Nazi Berlin. "Once I had settled in the States for good and decided never to go back to my former home, I wanted to discard my 'German' personality along with my citizenship, the way one would discard a worn-out suit. I was so bitter that I decided to forget who and what I had been and leave everything behind me. In other words, start a new American life." As his biographer Hans Hess has written, Grosz was known as a political satirist and was expected to continue to satirize. Yet satire requires that one both understand the scene and dislike it. As a newcomer, Grosz did not yet understand the American scene and thus far he liked it. The early watercolors such as Lady on the Subway are examples of Grosz's coming to terms with American culture and his fascination with his new home.
Allison Kemmerer

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