Subway Scene

Artist: Julian Joseph
Subway Scene, a painting

Julian Joseph (1882-1964), Subway Scene, 1947, oil on canvas, 20 1/8 x 24 5/16 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of Dr. George Nicholson.

Commentary by Rebecca de Schweinitz
Assistant Professor of History

Among the collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a photographic collection of New York City subway passengers by Walker Evans. Like the famous images he took for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, Evans’ subway photographs, taken in the late 1930s and early 1940s, seek to capture the mundane, yet poignant, facts of everyday life. Stanley Kubrick undertook a similar project for Look magazine in 1946. I imagine that Julian Joseph would have been familiar with their candid, “documentary style” (as Evans put it), photographs, and it is within this context, as well as the post-World War II context of African American history that I view his 1947 Subway Scene.

Like Evans and Kubrick, Joseph chooses people in a crowded subway car for his subject. It is the most ordinary of public places, but one that is constantly moving, and usually below the surface. It is the type of public space where everyone is both visible and invisible; a public space that pretends not to be public, where people detach from one another, turn inward. The two center passengers cover their thoughts with outward, blank gazes; and their bodies with the hats, gloves, and coats of middle-class respectability. The things they carry with them are also hidden. What essentials does the woman’s purse contain? What is in the man’s wrapped package? The passengers are between meaningful social interactions that might tell us something more about who they are, just as they are between above-ground destinations.

The letters in the window on the left of the painting indicate the subway car is probably an IRT (Interborough Rapid Transfer) line—and one that likely ran the full length of the west side of the most diverse city in America. It is also a Local that will make frequent stops, rather than an Express line. It is headed perhaps from the South Ferry Terminal near Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to 145th St. Lenox Ave., the heart of Harlem, and one of the only places the black figure in the painting would have been able to live in the city. The passengers in Joseph’s painting reflect the diversity of the sections of Manhattan the subway runs beneath. I am especially struck by the juxtaposition of the white woman and white working class man of southern European immigrant stock (his class status given away by his lack of hat, gloves, collared-shirt, and tie, as well as by his disheveled hair and overcoat), with the middle-class black man. There are no headlines on the newspaper to locate the painting at a particular moment in time (or to distract us from the people), but the integration of a well-to-do African American man in this transitory (on many levels) scene, reflects well the realities and possibilities of African Americans in the late 1940s.

World War II had created unprecedented job opportunities for black Americans, increased migration out of the South to urban areas, and loosened discriminatory practices and racial prejudices. In 1947, the same year Joseph painted Subway Scene, President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights issued a report that outlined the progress of the nation on racial issues, disturbing evidence of on-going racial violence and discrimination, and a program of action that suggested the government should play a key role in safeguarding civil rights. Just a year later the President would officially desegregate the U.S. military, and the Supreme Court would end the enforcement of racially restrictive housing covenants that kept blacks from buying or leasing homes in white neighborhoods.

Of course the woman the central figure sits next to is safely aging rather than a sexually alluring white female who might make the black man’s presence threatening to post-War viewers. And the mingling of races and classes under the city is temporary and not likely to be replicated, in such an intimate way, in many public or private spaces outside this subterranean world. The figures in the painting clearly do not belong together. (In contrast, Evans’ subway photographs primarily feature individual riders or family members or friends traveling together.) But if there were limits to late 1940s racial liberalism, it was a time of flux; a time when a man, the race he represents, and his country, was in transit.
Selected Sources:

Walker Evans, Many Are Called (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s, “Walker Evans Subway Collection,” viewable online at http://www.metmuseum.org/search-results?ft=walker+evans+subway&x=8&y=5

Mia Moffett, “Riding the Subway with Stanley Kubrick,” Museum of the City of New York Website (April 24, 2012). http://mcnyblog.org/2012/04/24/a-ride-on-the-subway-in-1946-with-stanley-kubrick/

To Secure These Rights: The Report of Harry S. Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, edited with an introduction by Steven F. Lawson (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004).
Return to Gallery