Arnold Friedman 1874-1946

Scullers

  • 18 x 30 1/4 inches (45.7 x 76.8 cm)
  • Oil on canvas
  • Signed lower right
  • c. 1930-33

Why We Love It

Arnold Friedman did not start painting full time until he retired as a postal worker at the age of 59, making his success as an artist all the more extraordinary. Time and again he painted a unique view of the world by combining his work-a-day life experience with his interest in modern art.

The Value

Scullers is an example of Friedman’s most important work, where he created strikingly modern compositions with everyday imagery. These works received the best critical response during his life and after his death. The renowned American art critics Clement Greenberg and Hilton Kramer both stated that Friedman’s originality was at its height during this period.

Artist Background

1874: Born in Queens, New York City; 1890s: Worked as a Post Office clerk for the next forty some years, painting on evenings and weekends; 1905: Began his first formal art training with Robert Henri at the Art Students League in New York; 1909: Took a six-month leave of absence from postal job to study art in Paris; 1936: Participated in the First Congress of American Artists against War and Fascism in New York City; 1946: Died.

The incredible originality of Arnold Friedman’s work has occasionally led to the misconception that he was an outsider artist or “a Sunday painter,” essentially untaught and removed from the mainstream currents that defined American modernism in the early 20th century. Although Friedman worked a full-time job, maintaining a stable income by serving at the post office for forty years, he painted virtually everyday, either before or after his shift, and he was fully engaged with the contemporary issues surrounding modern art during his time. Moreover, he did receive some artistic training, albeit somewhat later in life, studying first at the Art Students League and then with Robert Henri at the New York School of Art. Furthermore, like most aspiring American artists of his day, Friedman travelled to Europe, taking a leave of absence from the post office to spend six months studying in Paris. There he fell under the influence of the French Impressionists, looking especially to the pointillist work of Georges Seurat. He was also exposed to Cubism, and Friedman began to merge these disparate influences into his own highly unique and individual style.

In 1933, he was finally able to retire from his work at the post office and begin painting full-time.  Due partly to this newfound freedom and partly to changes in the art world, Friedman’s paintings began to evolve, and Scullers represents an early phase in this gradual development. Friedman increasingly turned to subjects that he was familiar with, in this case, the area of Flushing Bay, within easy walking distance of his home in Queens, New York. In subject matter, the work clearly hearkens back to the famous rowing pictures by Thomas Eakins, however Friedman’s use of compressed space and distorted scale makes this painting distinctly modernist in feeling. Scullers also demonstrates his early attempts to develop a looser and more painterly style. Though his brushwork is still tentative, it seems to predict the extremely tactile paint-encrusted surfaces of his later career.