Capturing New York City in Vivid Color

It appears as if you are looking at a photograph. The image of the Brooklyn Bridge is vividly captured. But if one glimpses only at it briefly, what might go unnoticed is that the framed picture is not a photograph but a watercolor.

The painting is among 11 pieces in a new exhibition, Romancing New York: Watercolors by Frederick Brosen, on display at the South Street Seaport Museum. The strikingly virtuosic paintings – some of which are five feet long – depict the city’s architecture and streetscapes, and reveal the inherent and eclectic beauty of the city’s built environment.

A native New Yorker, Brosen paints using on-site studies, photographs and sketches to create the timeless portraits. The Royal Society of Arts & Letters in London recognized him with a Silver Medal of Honor, he received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, and his work has been collected and exhibited by major galleries and museums, including a 2005 exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

We spoke recently with Brosen about his work, and the pieces now on display.

Tell me about the new exhibit, and the pieces that have been selected.

The works we selected are of the downtown or waterfront areas of the city; Lower Manhattan and Coney Island, pertaining to the South Street Seaports Museum’s areas of interest, the older architecture and maritime past of the city.

What common thread runs through them all?

In a city of perpetual change, the enduring qualities of both the landmarked and unintended relics of our architectural heritage that have been moved through by many generations and still speak directly to us today.

What do you look for when you select a subject?

Primarily a transcendent, aesthetic reaction, a combination of the forms and textures, light and patina of a given view that somehow inspire an emotional connection. I can spend up to 12 weeks on a large and complicated work, so I must have a sustained empathy toward the subject to warrant that level of engagement. Some subjects have such a strong resonance for me that I have painted them repeatedly, over several years.

Do you have a favorite piece?

That is difficult, I’ve been painting professionally for almost 35 years now, and have painted many cities other than New York, like Paris, Venice and Amsterdam, to name a few. So I do have favorites from each place, and strong memories and associations with the times I painted each series. But no single favorite.

How do you hope people respond when they view your watercolors?

The best effect a painted landscape can have on a viewer is that through the artist’s interpretation the onlooker is shown new ways to see a place, perhaps even surprising ways to feel about it. A successful work can bring an enhanced awareness, and appreciation, of new possibilities. That is the ultimate goal, something artists aspire to.

Why did you choose the Brooklyn Bridge for one piece?

I have actually painted the Brooklyn Bridge many times, and I am far from alone in finding it a great and enduring subject. It’s monumental combination and solidity and grace speak for itself as making for a great subject. I chose this particular vantage because it silhouettes the bridges stanchion and arching roadway so elegantly against the backdrop of Lower Manhattan and the Seaport.

How long did it take you to complete that painting?

I imagine a work that large and complex was close to 3 months of uninterrupted drawing then painting.

Why did you choose this career path?

Many working artists share my feeling that you don’t choose it; it chooses you. One can only stay true to the artists path if one feels incomplete without it; the insecurity of the artists’ life can only be justified by the profound satisfaction of being in the studio, otherwise the more stable route of a regular paycheck and the accompanying benefits will win out. It is not a life for everyone, but if you find a true passion, it is the finest life, perhaps the only life…

And if you weren’t painting, what would you do?

Write, or be a persistent fly-in-the-ointment at the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Romancing New York: Watercolors by Frederick Brosen will be at the South Street Seaport Museum through January 6, 2013. You can learn more by visiting www.southstreetseaportmuseum.org.