‘Subway’ by the American painter Lily Furedi is less of a painting and more of a mural, depicting the simplicity yet the vibrance of a subway ride in New York.
‘Subway’ was painted for the U.S. Public Works of Art Project in 1934 and it received praise from both critics and people. It was so well-received that it was selected to be one of the gifts for the White House.
So what makes this painting so good? Let’s take a deeper look at it and find out what the artist wanted to show, and convey through the painting.
Form, Structure, and Composition
The composition and style of the painting are unique, and it is very difficult to put it in any separate box. The painting looks like it was painted by Paul Cézanne and Edward Hopper.
Furedi took inspiration from Cézanne with this characteristic cubicle and conical form and structure. For the lighting and composition, she borrowed the style from Edward Hopper.
You can see the influence of Hopper’s use of harsh lighting; searingly bright highlights give the painting an over-exposed look. But at the same time, she has refrained from using colors with too much hue.
The effect of these choices is the ‘fluorescent’ look to the painting, just like you see in Hopper’s creations. Instead of going with photo-realistic figures, Furedi went with the abstract.
The influence of Cézanne is quite evident in the way the human subjects are painted. The combined effect of both these styles makes the painting alive.
The Scene of the Painting
‘Subway’ depicts the scene of a subway. But the general idea and image one forms while thinking of any subway is a bleak, dark, and dirty one. There is hardly any light in these subways, making the dull and gray interiors even more somber.
While people are jam-packed in the subway, they are emotionally distant from each other. Everyone is busy doing something and there is an expression of gloom on their faces.
But ‘Subway’ depicts something completely different. While the artist has not gone into fantasy and painted a circus performed inside the subway, she has shown the same events that happen in a subway in a completely different light.
The Subway Alive
Look at the dynamic nature of the subway scene. There is something going on in every seat. At the back there is a guy who is half-asleep, some people are just standing, while others are reading magazines and papers.
A great way of seeing any painting is by layering it. The first layer is the front layer where the artist wants the most attention from the viewers.
The front layer shows a group of people sitting, engaged in different activities. A woman is putting on her lipstick, while the man sitting next to her watches.
Another man is reading a newspaper and the woman beside him is looking at his coat. There’s a violinist who is almost asleep, while another worker is reading a magazine.
Two women are sitting on the right side of the painting and are engaged in a jovial conversation. The entire subway is packed with people, enjoying the ride.
In the second and third layers, you can see a couple sitting together, talking about something intimately. There is a man standing on the left of the canvas, probably looking for a seat.
The reason why this subway scene feels alive is because there is heterogeneity. Normally, you’ll see almost all the people in a subway just reading or half asleep. Perhaps some will do nothing and just stare into nothingness.
But here, everyone is doing something different. The subway is full of activity. Add the bright sunshine that fills the compartment and you get a jovial, energetic scene.
You can almost feel the freshness; the bright sunlight, the chatter and noise of the city, the noise from the people nearby talking. An ambiance is created by your mind when you look at this painting.
The Size and Appeal
Another big reason why this painting captures attention is because of its size. This is a huge painting, measuring almost 40 inches by 50 inches! So the viewers can see all the little details of the painting.
Your perspective is also a crucial factor that brings this painting to life. The artist has placed the viewer in the front of the scene. You almost stand at the front, looking at all the faces of the people who are facing you.
You are watching a subway compartment full of life, full of people doing different things. This painting, due to its size, feels more like a window than an artwork.