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Field News
14 May 2020

From the Collection: Coney Island

Thanks to our friends at NYC & Company, we learned about the Coney Island Collection. It got us thinking about the ways that self-taught artists have described this exciting and vibrant New York City neighborhood. At the turn of the 20th century, thriving businesses rose to meet the demand of the budding tourism industry in New York. As you’ll see in our collection, European carousel traditions gave way to the showmanship and style of Brooklyn-based carvers.

From a depiction of a barren boardwalk to scenes with crowds of bathers,  Vestie Davis returned time and again to Coney Island as a subject for his paintings. His painting of Luna Park, a glamorous, racy, and risqué yet family friendly attraction, was perfect fodder for the sharp, bright palette consistent with other works by Davis.

The thought of Coney Island brings to mind Nathan’s, beaches, and rides of all kinds, including the carousel. In the United States, carousels developed in the waning decades of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth, just as the country experienced one of the greatest waves of immigration, mostly from Eastern Europe.

This elegant carousel horse was carved by Charles Carmel, who came to America in 1883 and settled in Brooklyn, near Coney Island. Carmel may have learned carving in Russia. After apprenticing with Charles I.D. Looff, Carmel opened his own woodcarving shop, contributing to the formation of the distinctive Coney Island style.  Horses made during this period by Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein can also be found in the museum’s collection.

Finally, this famous canvas by Ralph Fasanella highlights the democratic nature of New York’s public beaches – typified by Coney Island – open to all and sundry. Shedding the grit and worries of city life, Fasanella’s vision offers a happy polyglot of people and amusements just within reach on the other side of a long tunnel.