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The Beginning of the Image of the Skyline

By Katie Ott

Today, it’s very hard to think of New York City without its skyscrapers. The massive buildings that inhabit the city are an essential part of the city’s modern definition. However, it was only in the 1890s that massive skyscrapers began to appear in New York.[1] Feelings toward these skyscrapers that so dramatically changed the skyline were conflicting, much as they are today. Artists who captured the skyline when it was first beginning to appear therefore attempted to document both the sympathetic and hostile reactions to these buildings.


In the 1920s, images of optimism, pessimism, and ambivalence towards the skyline appeared, corresponding to the massive building boom occurring at the same time. Artists began to take these positive and negative opinions of the skyline and turn them into art. Artists who shared a positive reaction to the introduction of skyscrapers and the new skyline include Charles Sheeler, Margaret Bourke-White, and Hugh Ferriss; while negative reactions to the skyline can be found in the work of Joseph Stella, Paul Strand, and John Alden Carpenter.


Then in the 1930s, the skyscraper and its skyline finally became recognized as integral and dominant parts of both the American sensibility and topography. [2] The 1930s brought about a shift in the perception of the skyline, as images of it appeared everywhere. The world began to think of New York in terms of its skyscrapers and its skyline. Many of the earlier dissenters changed their views on the skyline and the skyscrapers.[3]

Among the early artists who depicted skylines in the 1920s, including Hugh Ferriss,actively chose not to include humans in their work. The collection of buildings was supposed to convey an image of optimal rationality and romantic grandeur. They were supposed to inspire religious awe and ecstasy, much like churches did in the 

past. According to the artists who depicted skylines in this period, including human beings, who are imperfect and flawed, in the image of the skyline would only detract from its beauty and majesty. The skyscrapers that made up the skyline were supposed to appear as if they were “hung from heaven,” and were thought to be the product of man’s highest potential according to artists from this time.[4]

Dorothy McEntee painted the New York City skyline from Brooklyn, beginning in the year 1935, right when the skyline and skyscrapers were becoming accepted and embraced by the majority of the population. [5] McEntee aimed to capture the essence, or overall feeling and emotion, of the skyline and not merely document the view, but together her paintings create a fantastic history of the lower Manhattan skyline.

Perspective on McEntee’s work can be achieved by reference to another modern day artist who painted the New York skyline in the 1990s, Charles J. Gerhart. Gerhart states[6] that he thinks waterfronts and skylines are particularly interesting to depict. He says, “I find these subjects interesting in different weather conditions and at different times of day.”[7] As one can easily see by studying her paintings of the lower Manhattan skyline, Dorothy McEntee would agree with this statement. Her paintings do not merely display the skyline as bright lights against the pitch-black backdrop of the sky or on a sunny, cloudless picturesque day. Rather, she focuses on the skyline in the rain, in the snow, at night, or even surrounded by fog. This gives viewers a realistic depiction of the skyline. Another similarity between Charles Gerhat and Dorothy McEntee is shown in Gerhat’s quote: “Periods of inclement weather might keep me in but not down.”[8] There is no doubt that McEntee would agree whole-heartedly with this statement. The massive, dark, almost impressionistic clouds that frequently appear in her paintings suggest that it is often raining while McEntee is painting. There are several paintings where snow appears, including “Daphne Oak.” “Daphne Oak”, painted in 1979, displays 

the Brooklyn Promenade covered in snow from McEntee’s window. In the painting, we can see the ice sticking to McEntee’s window where she is painting.[9] It seems that McEntee often added extra water to her watercolors, making the buildings appear hazy and blotted out as if by fog. In fact, she only really has one painting from 1949 where the sun is actually visible, entitled “Old Ferry Slip, New York”.[10] 

Charles Gerhat goes on to explain, “…but whatever my subject, my paintings almost always include some form of architecture, whether a house, a bridge, or a boat.”[11] Almost all of McEntee’s paintings as well contained architecture. Even her earliest paintings, painted in both Pennsylvania and New York, reference homes, mills, boats, and docks. The only paintings of hers that do not contain any forms of architecture focus on specific people or animals.

Gerhat continues, stating: “I am content putting together a still life with somewhat unrelated elements.”[12] Dorothy McEntee did not shy away from unusual elements of her paintings, either. She often painted exactly what she saw in her view of the skyline without avoiding certain elements, such as buildings and piers at the Brooklyn waterfront, rooftops in Brooklyn heights and people, that could be considered superfluous or distracting. She often included the Brooklyn waterfront in her skyline paintings, with its disintegrating piers and large blue roofed waterfront warehouses. There are also detailed rooftops of the buildings in Brooklyn Heights that McEntee saw when she was painting the skyline. Many times the Brooklyn waterfront or the rooftops of buildings take up a majority of her paintings. Including these elements gave an 

overall image of what it was truly like to see the skyline from Brooklyn without deleting any components of the view. Some of her watercolors incorporate people in the skyline as well.  In one of her paintings titled “Bathsheba in Brooklyn” from 1949, she portrays something completely unusual both for her and for the waterfront: a sun bathing woman dressed in nothing but a bikini resting on one of the docks in Brooklyn.[13] Especially considering the conservative mindset of the 1940s, it is fascinating that Dorothy would chose to depict such a scene. Her incorporation of elements that may appear unusual in her paintings displays how committed Dorothy was to depicting the skyline in actuality and capturing its essence, as opposed to producing a perfected form of it as one might do in paintings that serve a documentary purpose.

Unlike previous painters of the skyline, Dorothy McEntee and Gerhat aren’t opposed to including humans in their images. Gerhat writes that: “I also like to include the human element whenever I feel it might suit the main subject of my composition.”[14] Dorothy also included people in several of her paintings of the skyline. This is in sharp contrast to the paintings by earlier artists of the skyline who thought the inclusion of human beings in their images of the skyline would distract from the beauty and magnificence of the skyline. Gerhat and McEntee deliberately choose to include humans in their paintings, creating a sense of familiarity and normalcy with the skyline in their paintings. This may reflect a change in the general perception of the skyline. It is no longer a merely massive and beautiful block of buildings that inspires awe from afar, but it a familiar, normal, and regular part of New Yorker’s lives. One of McEntee’s later paintings is entitled “A Man, A Bird, and a Boat.”[15] Even in her title McEntee completely excludes the prominent skyline. The skyline has become part of the background landscape of everyday life to McEntee. Because it has become so commonplace, it doesn’t even need to be named in her title like the bird, boat, and man do.

When one attempts to research the artist “Dorothy McEntee,” there is little to no information available. She has no Wikipedia page, no art gallery website hosting her works, no bibliography page on any art website, no featured artist page in any book. Not one of her paintings of the skyline comes up when one does an image search. The only online presence Dorothy McEntee has is her obituary and an image of one of her woodcarvings of a cat that is floating around Pinterest. She is almost invisible to the general public. This lack of an awareness of her work is deplorable. McEntee deserves much more respect than just one or two of her woodcarvings hidden online. This woman, who captured the skyline of downtown Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights in her watercolors, should be recognized for her valuable contribution of depictions of the downtown skyline from 1935 to 1983 to the cultural history of New York. Her paintings do much more than document the skyline of lower Manhattan, they convey the emotion behind the skyline at a specific points in history.


Dorothy Layng McEntee was born in the year 1902 in Brooklyn, New York.[16] She lived in Brooklyn for the majority of her life and one can imagine that she was constantly seeing the skyline. It’s amazing that even after living in New York for so long and seeing the skyline so often, she still maintained her fascination with it. She never grew tired of the skyline or took it for granted, as many of us tend to do over time. Drew to the emotions created by the skyline, McEntee continued to capture the skyline up until she retired at the age of 80.[17]

McEntee studied art at the Pratt Institute for three years when she completed high school and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for two years, from approximately 1920 to 1925. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is known for students that are insatiably curious and in pursuit of a personal vision.[18] McEntee clearly fits that description. She painted the same scene over and over again for fifty years and in the process certainly created a personal vision of the skyline as an essential element of everyday life. She also studied at the Art Students League in New York. While at the country school of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, McEntee spent two full years painting outdoors in the Pennsylvania farm country. She practiced painting “en plein air” or painting outside in the open air. During her time as a student, she worked six hours a day at the school to defray costs. One of the watercolor paintings she produced while painting outdoors in Pennsylvania was bought by the Reading Museum. After painting in the countryside, McEntee began to display her work in New York and Philadelphia. In the American Society Annual, four of her landscapes were hung together, a large accomplishment at the time.[19]

Although those few who are familiar with her art classify her as a watercolor artist, she produced many wood engravings as well. Perhaps her most famous one is an image of a cat resting on a wicker rocking chair. The cat lies in a circle, as cats often do, with its ears at a slant, suggesting that the cat is not fully asleep, but has just laid its head down on top of its paws. Her woodcarving pieces exemplify extreme attention to detail, even in the background of the carving. In this example, McEntee creates a fire with dancing flames in the right hand corner of the image. These woodcuts were shown with the American Artists Group, the Print Club of Philadelphia, and the Weyhe Gallery. She displayed her woodcuts among the likes of Diego Rivera at The Exhibition of the American Artists Group in 1936 held at The New Orleans Arts and Crafts Club.[20] Her work was also featured in the collection, “Woodcuts of the Thirties” in Colophon, a Book Collector’s Quarterly, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.[21]

Although McEntee’s woodcarvings are beautifully executed, her best work is her watercolor paintings on the skyline of lower Manhattan, in which she applies the same kind of attention to detail to the skylines that she did to the backgrounds of the woodcuts. Through her watercolors, painted from 1935 to 1983, we see the skyline transform. [22] The skyline grows up and matures. New buildings are constructed, new ships sail through the waters below, and new docks are born, changing the iconic view. Her work creates a catalog of the skyline for the fifty years that she painted it. We also see different perspectives of the skylines throughout her work. Some of her paintings capture the view from the Brooklyn Bridge, some from Brooklyn Heights, several from the Promenade, and others from an even higher point, her apartment window and sometimes even from the roof of her apartment building. One work in particular, entitled “Chess Castle Tugboat,” has a very distinct perspective, McEntee’s own apartment window. McEntee describes her paintings of the skyline as not as documentary, but rather as a romantic realistic style. She did not aim to merely reproduce an image of the skyline; although McEntee does portray an accurate view of the skyline with specific buildings at approximately the correct scale that convey the realistic method of her style. Her main objective was rather to portray the essence of skyline. She wanted to capture the feelings and emotions that encapsulated the skyline and how one feels when looking at it through her watercolors. This feeling and emotion behind each of her paintings composes the romantic element of her style as an artist. The unique style of her skyline paintings were first placed on display with McEntee’s solo art show displayed at the Seventieth Art Gallery in Manhattan.[23]

 

While she was not painting the skyline, McEntee was also working as a high school art teacher in Brooklyn Heights. Her school, St. Ann’s, was chosen to become one of the three high schools in the city to offer professional training in art to talented students. She taught over 2000 high school students, many of which are artists today. Not one to do just the minimum amount of work, McEntee was also involved in after-school art projects, such as painting stage backdrops and helping with the school’s magazine. She found school to be both satisfying and frustrating; because she was so heavily involved, she did not have much time for her own work.[24]

McEntee was a member of the American Watercolor Society, the Virginia Watercolor society, the Print Club of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Water Color Club. She was also a member of the Fellowship of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and a life member of the Art Students League of New York.[25] Her memberships in all of these organizations display how active and connected she was in the art scene in both Pennsylvania and New York. McEntee also had one of her watercolors, entitled “Thru the Cables” exhibited at the 1940 World Fair.[26] “Thru the Cables” is also unique among McEntee’s paintings because it displays the skyline through the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In the forties and fifties, McEntee illustrated six children’s books written by her sister, Frances McEntee Martin, children’s books. Most of the books were focused on stories of animals and were aimed at an audience of older children. Some of Martin’s and McEntee’s collaborations include: Nine Tales of Coyote, Nine Tales of Raven, Dippy the Duck, and Pirate Island. Many of the books retold Native American folklore. The illustrations in these books were not the colorful watercolors McEntee generally produced. They were done in the traditional Native American style, with defined lines and structure. There were all published through Harper Brothers, also known as Harper and Row.[27]

In 1961, she retired from her teaching job to focus solely on her art. Towards the end of her life, McEntee desired to live closer to the skyline. She wanted to be able to view it through her own window, so in the 1960s when she was around 60 years old, McEntee moved into an apartment in Brooklyn Heights on the East River and began to paint more images of the skyline. Her address was 57 Montague Street at The Breukelen. She lived in apartment 9B. The apartment has a large bay window in the living room with full views of the skyline.

She also traveled to Europe after her retirement from teaching. In 1976, McEntee published her seventh and final book collaboration with her sister. In the 1980’s, The Whitney Museum sent one of her paintings to Tokyo, Japan for their display at the Tokyo Museum of Art entitled, “Visions of New York City.” In 1980, McEntee was quoted as saying that she strove for retrospective in her art, a “maiden effort” at the age of 78.[28]


In 1984, McEntee retired to Norfolk, Virginia to be closer to her sister and her nieces and nephews. Even though she was 81 years old, she continued to paint. While she was living in Norfolk, a fifty-year retrospective of her work was exhibited at the local Sovran Bank.[29]


Dorothy McEntee passed away at the age of 87 on May 16, 1990 in a hospital still relatively unknown as an artist. According to her obituary, McEntee lived on the 1500 block of Cloncurry Road in Norfolk, Virginia at the time of her death.[30]


Dorothy McEntee captured something that is so essential to New York, and America’s, past, present, and future. She may not have achieved anything close to fame or fortune, but she certainly captured the essence of the New York skyline: its everyday energy and life and the thoughts and emotion behind it and, at the same time, providing a fantastic documentation of the skyline view from Brooklyn between 1935 and 1983.

[1] Schleier, Merrill, The Image of the Skyscraper in American Art (Berkeley, University of California, 1983).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] "Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.

[6] Gerhart, Charles, Watercolor Page: Painting Urban Scenes (American Artist, March 1990), 38.

[7] Gerhart, Charles, Watercolor Page: Painting Urban Scenes (American Artist, March 1990), 38.

[8] Ibid.

[9] "Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.39.

[10] "Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.44.

[11] Gerhart, Charles, Watercolor Page: Painting Urban Scenes (American Artist, March 1990), 38.

[12] Ibid.

[13] "Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.7.

[14] Gerhart, Charles, Watercolor Page: Painting Urban Scenes (American Artist, March 1990), 38.

[15] "Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.36.

[16] "Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.

[17] "Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.

[18] “Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: Admissions,” Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2014, http://micro.pafa.edu/admissions.

[19] "Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.

[20] “Exhibiton of the American Artists Group,” Williams Research Center Files, 1936, 155-156.

[21] Ibid.

[22] "Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] "Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.

[26] Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.49

[27] "Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.

[28] Ibid.

[29] "Dorothy McEntee: Realist in Watercolor," (Accession files for Dorothy Layng McEntee paintings, Brooklyn Historical Society, 1980), M1991.36.

[30] Ibid.