Browsing through the many arts and antiques magazines I get in the mail every month or two, I frequently come across paintings of beautiful New York City street scenes, usually in the snow. Recently, I realized all of these paintings are by the same artist, Guy C. Wiggins. I’ve heard of Wiggins before, but up until now I didn’t know much about him beyond the fact that I seemed to enjoy all of his paintings.
Guy C. Wiggins (1883-1962) was the second of three generations of Wiggins artists; his father J. Carleton Wiggins (1848-1932) was a painter and his son Guy A. Wiggins (b. 1920) is as well. After studying at the National Academy of Design under Robert Henri, Guy C. Wiggins worked both in New York City and in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where he eventually founded his own art school. He is most known for his depictions of New York City landmarks, primarily in the snow and in an Impressionist style. He also painted landscapes set in Connecticut, New England, and the American west (Sangimino). Wiggins has one painting, Metropolitan Tower, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. I have read in several places that he was, at least for a time, the youngest artist to ever have a work purchased by the Met. Metropolitan Tower is a bit more sombre in tone than many of Wiggins’s other New York City paintings, and it is one of the few that does not include snow, though the fog and smoke give it some similar effects and color palette.
Several other important museums own works by Wiggins; a partial list of institutions can be found here at Questroyal Fine Art. The Hickory Museum of Art in Hickory, NC owns this beautiful Wiggins, which will be featured in an upcoming exhibition titled “Snowfall in the City and the Country” (Nov. 16, 2014 – Mar. 9, 2015).
The Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, CT owns this small, beautiful painting of the New York Public Library in the snow.
According to the Richmond Art Museum in Indiana, which owns the piece shown below, Wiggins painted this work specifically for a 1921 exhibition held at the museum (Richmond Art Museum). The fact that Wiggins would paint a well-known New York City locale for the express purpose of being displayed in Indiana attests, I think, to the widespread popularity of his New York cityscapes.
Wiggins was a commercially-minded artist. He is quoted as having once said about his New York cityscapes: “If you want to sell paintings, it helps if it’s recognizable to many people” (Farmer). While I would agree that the familiarity of many views depicted in Wiggins’s paintings work to their benefit, I don’t think that easy recognition alone explains their full impact. The Heckscher Museum’s collection database perhaps succinctly explains the effects of Wiggins’s style of his well-known subject matter as follows: “By focusing on scenes of New York in winter, Wiggins softened the brutal honesty expounded by Henri [Robert Henri, Wiggins’s mentor]. Snow obscures the harsh appearance of the city while underscoring the constant activity and bustle of the city streets” (Heckscher Museum of Art). The description of one Wiggins snowy Columbus Circle in a Godel & Co. Fine Arts catalog observes that “a thin veil of snow obscures the surrounding buildings, so that these bulky structures seem magically light and insubstantial, and their orange, pink, and lavender shades glow faintly through the haze” (Quick 78).
Each of these statements explains a part of the paintings’ appeal. Wiggins’s subjects are familiar and thus evoke viewers’ own emotions associated with New York City and its various landmarks. Yet, as the latter two passages observe, Wiggins’s repeated use of snow changes both the effects and the appearances of these familiar sites — softening them, obscuring them, and romanticizing them.
Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in a big city can tell you that a snow-covered New York is nowhere as neat, orderly, or calm as Wiggins makes it out to be. The snow does not remain prestine, white, and fluffy for long. The streets are nowhere near as peaceful and uncrowded as Wiggins shows, nor do transportation and foot traffic contine with the ease suggested by his bright little cabs and well-dressed pedestrians, but if anything, this idealism makes the works even more evocative. They make me daydream about walking down the Manhattan sidewalks in stylish boots, sipping on a coffee, and passing the city’s most beautiful historic buildings on my way to a museum exhibition or academic event. New York is a city that many people, especially those involved in the arts as I am, dream about visiting or living in, so I imagine that these works have a similar effect on many other people. An already frequently-romanticized city is further idealized through the psychological and aesthetic effects of the snow in Wiggins’s pictures.
In the summer of 2011, the Salmagundi Art Club, a New York artists’ club and exhibition venue to which all three Wiggins men belonged, held a show of father, son, and grandson’s paintings. The New York Times wrote an article about the exhibition, and the Salmagundi Club wrote a blog entry about it as well. The Salmagundi exhibition was curated by Joan Whalen, who had previously shown the three Wiggins’s works together at her own gallery in 1998 and also currently represents Guy A. Wiggins.
Judging by the number of gallery and auction advertisements featuring his paintings that regularly appear in arts and antiques magazines, Guy C. Wiggins is currently very popular on the art market. The fact that so many dealers choose to feature his paintings in their advertisements suggests that they are popular enough to attract attention and draw potential buyers to sales. I would not be surprised to learn that the 2011 Salmagundi Club show mentioned before was largely responsible for Wiggins’s current market activity; unfortunately, I do not currently have access to enough market data to test this hypothesis.
Guy A. Wiggins has continued in his father’s footsteps not just in his choice of profession, but also in his subject matter. Visit his website to view his works, including many incredible New York city-scapes both with and without snow. They are every bit as powerful as his father’s.
Entry for Snowed Under in New York. Heckscher Museum of Art. Online.
“Washington Square in Winter”. Richmond Art Museum. Online.
Farmer, Ann. “A Family of Painters Is Having Its Moment”. The New York Times. June 6, 2011. Print (newspaper article). Also published on NYTimes.com, June 7, 2011.
Quick, Thomas. An American Vision V. New York: Godel & Co., Inc., Fine Art, 2012. Print.
Sangimino, Nina. “Guy C. Wiggins (1883-1962)”. Questroyal Fine Art LLC. Online.
thesalmagundian. “June 6, 2011: New York Times”. The Salmagundian. Dec. 31, 2011. Online (blog post).