Backing Down, Hudson River

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Oil painting by Nicholas Berger

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The Lower Manhattan waterfront, West Side, mid-20th century. A New York Central System tug kicks up a wake as it backs away from a Hudson River pier. The 90-foot, iron-hulled vessel — workhorse of the largest Eastern rail system — has just dropped off its tow, Barge 172, and the crewman is coiling lines, preparing for the next job.

Marine artist Nicholas Berger has captured a moment of not-so-distant history in his oil painting Backing Down, Hudson River. Berger, who is 65, has spent the last dozen years focusing on the 20th century Hudson River waterfront. “A time when America worked — confident and proud,” he says. “Generally, we don’t think of the mid-20th century as anything special. The age of sail and the big steamers have been done by others, but the more recent history hasn’t been covered as much.”

New York was a fascinating city back then, partly because it was in transition, says Berger. Though the piers were busy, the waterfront was showing signs of decay. Steamship lines were closing, and the barges, ferries and piers were falling into disrepair. “Nobody was going to fix them,” says Berger. “It was like a page turning. The waterfront was changing, and nobody noticed.” The Lower Manhattan piers shown in his painting are filled in today, he points out.

Although Berger puts the action front and center, surrounding details give life to the overall scene: Seagulls flock near the barge, and cats mingle by the open warehouse door. In fact, Berger admits, they’re his own cats, Crash and Jenny. “My favorite is the orange one,” he says.

Meanwhile, inspiration from the 1900s continues to come to him. “This is a passion that I am following,” says Berger of his 20th century works. “I am not looking to embellish the subject — there’s a gritty element here that’s part of New York.

“These are romance paintings,” he adds, “but not romantic paintings.”

To view this and other works by Nicholas Berger, visit the J. Russell Jinishian Gallery website at www.jrusselljinishiangallery.com or visit the gallery at 1899 Bronson Road in Fairfield, Connecticut.

April 2015 issue